a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary
Select a resource above

Seven Chosen to Serve


Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

The Arrest of Stephen

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

1. Luke declareth here upon what occasion, and to what end, and also with what rite, deacons were first made. He saith, When there arose a murmuring amongst the disciples, it was appeased by this remedy, as it is said in the common proverb, Good laws have taken their beginning of evil manners. And it may seem to be a strange thing, seeing that this is a function so excellent and so necessary in the Church, why it came not into the apostles’ minds at the first, (before there was any such occasion ministered,) to appoint deacons, and why the Spirit of God did not give them such counsel which they take now, being, as it were, enforced thereunto. But that which happened was both better then, and is also more profitable for us at this day, to be unto us an example. If the apostles had spoken of choosing deacons before any necessity did require the same, they should not have had the people so ready; they should have seemed to avoid labor and trouble; many would not have offered so liberally into the hands of other men. Therefore, it was requisite that the faithful should be convict [convinced] by experience that they might choose deacons willingly, whom they saw they could not want; and that through their own fault.

We learn in this history that the Church cannot be so framed by and by, but that there remain somewhat to be amended; neither can so great a building be so finished in one day, that there may not something be added to make the same perfect. Furthermore, we learn that there is no ordinance of God so holy and laudable, which is not either corrupt or made unprofitable through the fault of men. We wonder that things are never so well ordered in the world, but that there is always some evil mixed with the good; but it is the wickedness and corruption of our nature which causeth this. That was, indeed, a godly order, whereof Luke made mention before, when the goods of all men being consecrated to God, were distributed to every man as he had need; 306306     “In commune,” in common. when as the apostles, being, as it were, the stewards of God and the poor, had the chief government of the alms. But shortly after there ariseth a murmuring which troubleth this order. Here appeareth that corruption of men whereof I have spoken, which doth not suffer us to use our good things. We must also mark the subtilty 307307     “Artificium,” artifice. of Satan, who, to the end he may take from us the use of the gifts of God, goeth about this continually, that it may not remain pure and sound; but that, being mixed with other discommodities, it may, first, be suspected, secondly, loathed, and, lastly, quite taken away. But the apostles have taught us, by their example, that we must not yield unto such engines (and policies) of Satan. For they do not think it meet (being offended with the murmuring) to take away that ministry which they know pleaseth God; but rather invent a remedy whereby the offense may be taken away, and that may be retained which is God’s. Thus must we do. For what offenses soever Satan raise, 308308     “Quotidie,” daily, omitted. we must take good heed that he take not from us those ordinances which are otherwise wholesome.

The number increasing. We ought to wish for nothing more than that God would increase his Church, and gather together many 309309     “Quam plurimos,” as many as possible. on every side unto his people; but the corruption of our nature hindereth us from having any thing happy in all points. For there arise many discommodities also, even of the increasings of the Church. For it is a hard matter to keep many hypocrites from creeping into the multitude, whose wickedness is not by and by discovered, until such time as they have infected some part of the flock with their infection. Moreover, many wicked, froward, and dissolute persons do insinuate themselves under a false color of repentance. And that I may pass over innumerable things, there is never such agreement amongst many, but that, according to the diversity of their manners, their opinions are also diverse, so that one thing cannot please all alike. This offense causeth many to be desirous to choose a few for a Church; it causeth them to loathe or else to hate a multitude. But no trouble, no irksomeness, ought so much to prevail, but that we must always be desirous to have the Church increased; but that we must study to enlarge the same; but that we must cherish so much as in us lieth unity with the whole body.

A murmuring of the Greeks. Hereby it appeareth that they were not fully regenerate by the Spirit of God, to whom the diversity of nation and country ministereth occasion of disagreement. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Grecian, (Galatians 3:28.) Therefore, this indignation smelleth 310310     “Resipit,” savors. of the flesh and the world. Wherefore we must take good heed that the like fault be not found in us. 311311     “Nobis obrepat,” creep in upon us. There is another fault in that they declare their indignation by murmuring. Furthermore it is uncertain whether the complaint were true or no. For when Luke saith that the Greeks murmured, because their widows were not honored, he showeth not what was done in deed, but what they thought was done. And it may be that forasmuch as the apostles did prefer the Jews, 312312     “Judaeas,” the Jewish widows. because they were better known, the Greeks did think (though falsely) that their widows were despised as strangers. And this seemeth to be more like to be true. Furthermore the word ministering may be expounded two manner of ways, actively or passively. For we know that at the first there were widows chosen unto the ministration. 313313     “Ad diaconiam,” for ministering, as deaconnesses. Notwithstanding, I do rather think that the Greeks did complain, because their widows were not so liberally relieved as they wished. So that the ministration shall be that daily distribution which was wont to be made.

2. The twelve having the multitude called unto them It is a point [proof] of patience and meekness that the apostles are no more moved. 314314     “Quod non magis excandescunt apostoli,” that the apostles are not more inflamed or offended. It is a point of prudence and godly carefulness, in that they prevent the evil which began to arise, 315315     “Quod mature nascenti malo occurrunt,” that they quickly meet the growing evil. without deferring the remedy. For after that every dissension and division hath gathered strength, it is a wound hard to be cured. By this assembly it appeareth that the Church was governed by order and reason, so that the apostles had the chiefest authority, and that they did impart their counsels and purposes unto the people. 316316     “Cum plebe tamencommunicarent sua consilia,” yet did communicate with the people as to their purpose. Again, we must note that the faithful, or Christians, are in this place called disciples, in whom that of Isaiah must be fulfilled, “That they were all taught of God.” And again, that of Jeremiah, “They shall all know God, from the least to the greatest.”

It pleaseth not. It is in Greek [ουκ αρεστον] By which word, the Grecians do now express every opinion or decree which is better than another, or which is to be preferred as being better. 317317     “Quo nominie Graeci nunc quod aliis praestat, et tanquam melius praeferendum est nunc quodvis placitum designant,” by which term the Greeks designate sometimes “whatever is better than, or is to be preferred to, other things;” and at others, “any thing whatever that pleases,” or “any decree.” I do rather think that the apostles declare what is profitable, than simply what they have decreed. But if it be not expedient for them to meddle with this business, 318318     “Hac cura involvi,” to be involved in such business. they seem [now] to acknowledge some fault in that they ministered hitherto. And surely that is true, that use is the father of wisdom. 319319     “Prudentiae usum esse patrem,” that use (or experience) is the parent of prudence. Wherefore there shall be no absurdity if we shall say, that the apostles desire of the Church to be unburdened of that function, after that they have tried [experienced] that it is not meet for them. But if there were any fault, it ought rather to be ascribed unto necessity than unto them; for they took not this burthen upon them greedily, but seeing there was no other way as yet, they had better burthen themselves out of measure than that the poor should be forslowed. 320320     “Negligi,” neglected. And when as they say that it is not meet that they should be occupied in providing for the poor, their meaning is, that are unable to endure both burthens, so that they must needs let the one alone. For it is as if they should say, If thou wilt enjoy our ministry in the preaching of the gospel, deliver us from the charge of the poor, because we are not able to do both. But this seemeth to be spoken out of season by them, because they had not left the charge of teaching before, although they had the oversight of the alms. I answer, forasmuch as the administration was confused, they were so enwrapped, 321321     “Sic fuisse implicitos,” were so encumbered by it. that they could not wholly attend upon doctrine as was meet. Therefore, they refuse that function which draweth them away from the free and perfect 322322     “Solida,” entire. charge of teaching. Notwithstanding, we may not think that they had quite cast away all care of the poor, but that they did only seek somewhat to be lightened and eased, that they might attend upon their office. And, in the mean season, they declare that the ministry of the word is so painful 323323     “Operosum,” laborious. that it requireth a whole man, neither will it suffer him to be occupied about any other business; which, if it had been well considered, there had been a far other order taken in the Church.

The Popish bishops did suck 324324     “Ingurgitarunt,” ingulf, swallow up. up great riches under color of the ministration or deaconship; nevertheless, they entangled themselves in divers businesses, which they were scarce able to overcome, 325325     “Quibus vix sufficerent,” for which they could hardly suffice. though every one of them had had ten heads. Notwithstanding, such is their wickedness, that they say that there can be no church unless it be drowned in this depth; 326326     “Abysso,” abyss. neither do they cease to brag and boast that they are the successors of the apostles, whereas there is nothing which appeareth to be more contrary. They were careful for this, that they might not be occupied about serving of tables, and so be compelled to leave their own banquets. For whosoever is careful for his own table, he taketh leave to be vacant 327327     “Vacationem sibi sumit,” keepeth himself free. from other men’s tables.

But omitting these things, let us mark this sentence. We know what a holy thing it is to be careful for the poor. Therefore, forasmuch as the apostles prefer the preaching of the gospel before if we gather thereby that no obedience is more acceptable to God. Notwithstanding, the hardness is also declared, 328328     “Difficultas monstratur,” the difficulty is shown. when as they say that they cannot discharge both these duties. Surely we are not better than they. Therefore, let every one of us that is called unto the function of teaching addict himself wholly to order this his estate well. 329329     “Spartae suae ornandae, (ut est in proverbio,”) to adorn his own Sparta, (as the proverb expresses it.) For we are inclined to nothing more than to fall to slothfulness. Again, the flesh ministereth goodly cloaks and colors, so that those men cannot see by and by that they are led away from their calling which enwrap themselves in strange business. Wherefore, to the end ministers may prick forward themselves to do their duty, let them remember this saying of the apostles oftentimes, wherein they declare that, forasmuch as they are called unto the function of teaching, they must not any longer take charge of the poor. Therefore, what excuses have profane affairs 330330     “Occupationes,” occupation. (taken in hand even for some private gain) where that is set aside, which is otherwise accounted no small part of the worship of God.

3. Therefore, brethren, look out. Now we see to what end deacons were made. The word itself is indeed general, yet is it properly taken for those which are stewards for the poor. Whereby it appeareth how licentiously the Papists do mock God and men, who assign unto their deacons no other office but this, to have the charge of 331331     “Tractent,” to handle. the paten and chalice. Surely we need no disputation to prove that they agree in no point with the apostles. But if the readers be desirous to see any more concerning this point, they may repair unto our Institution, chapter 8. As touching this present place, the Church is permitted to choose. For it is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure. 332332     “Constituat suo arbitrio,” constitute at his own pleasure. Therefore, this is the (most) lawful way, that those be chosen by common voices 333333     “Elegi communibus suffragiis,” be elected by the common suffrages. who are to take upon them 334334     “Obidentia,” are to perform. any public function in the Church. And the apostles prescribe what manner [of] persons ought to be chosen, to wit, men of tried honesty and credit, 335335     “Probate fidei,” of tried faith. men endued with wisdom 336336     “Prudentia,” wisdom or prudence. and other gifts of the Spirit. And this is the mean between tyranny and confused liberty, 337337     “Licentiam,” licentious freedom. that nothing be done without 338338     “Nisi ex,” except by. the consent and approbation of the people, yet so that the pastors moderate and govern (this action, 339339     “Pastores tamen moderentur,” let pastors, however, moderate. ) that their authority may be as a bridle to keep under the people, 340340     “Ad cohibendos plebis impetus,” to curb the impetus (precipitancy or violence) of the people. lest they pass their bounds too much. In the mean season, this is worth the noting, that the apostles prescribe an order unto the faithful, lest they appoint any save those which are fit. For we do God no small injury if we take all that come to hand 341341     “Si fortuito quoslibet accipimus, “if we receive all persons whatsoever fortuitously. to govern his house. Therefore, we must use great circumspection that we choose none 342342     “Summa religio ne quis sumatur,” the greatest care that none be chosen. unto the holy function of the Church unless we have some trial of him first. The number of seven is applied 343343     “Accommodatus fuit,” was accommodated. unto the present necessity, lest any man should think 344344     “Ne quis putet,” let no man suppose. that there is some mystery comprehended under the same. Whereas Luke saith, full of the Spirit and wisdom, I do interpret it thus, that it is requisite that they be furnished both with other gifts of the Spirit, and also with wisdom, 345345     “Prudentia.” without which that function cannot be exercised well, both that they may beware of the leger-demain 346346     “Imposturis et fraudibus,” the imposition and fraud. of those men, who being too much given unto begging, require 347347     “Exsugunt,” suck up. that which is necessary for the poverty of the brethren, and also of their slanders, who cease not to backbite, though they have none occasion given them. For that function is not only painful, but also subject to many ungodly murmurings. 348348     “Non laboriosa modo, sed obnoxia sinistris murmuribus,” is not only laborious, but liable to sinister murmurings.

4. And we will give ourselves unto prayer. They show again that they have too much business otherwise, wherein they may exercise themselves during their whole life. For the old proverb agreeth hereunto very fitly, which was used sometimes in the solemn rites, do this. Therefore, they use the word [προσκαρτερησαι] which signifieth to be, as it were, fastened and tied to anything. Therefore, pastors must not think that they have so done their duty that they need to do no more when they have daily spent some time in teaching. There is another manner of study, another manner of zeal, another manner of continuance 349349     “Aliud studium, alius fervor, alia assiduitas exigitur,” another kind of zeal, another kind of fervor, another kind of assiduity, is required. required, that they may 350350     “Possint,” may be able to. indeed boast that they are wholly given to that thing. They adjoin thereunto prayer, not that they alone ought to pray, (for that is an exercise common to all the godly,) but because they have peculiar causes to pray above all others. There is no man which ought not to be careful for the common salvation of the Church. How much more, then, ought the pastor, who hath that function enjoined him by name to labor carefully [anxiously] for it? So Moses did indeed exhort others unto prayer, but he went before them as the ringleader 351351     “Antesignanus,” as a standard-bearer or leader. (Exodus 17:11.) And it is not without cause that Paul doth so often make mention of his prayers, (Romans 1:10.) Again, we must always remember that, that we shall lose all our labor bestowed upon plowing, sowing, and watering, unless the increase come from heaven, (1 Corinthians 3:7.) Therefore, it shall not suffice to take great pains in teaching, unless we require the blessing at the hands of the Lord, that our labor may not be in vain and unfruitful. Hereby it appeareth that the exercise of prayer 352352     “Precandi studium,” zeal in prayer. is not in vain commended unto the ministers of the word.

5. Stephen, full of faith. Luke doth not, therefore, separate faith from the Spirit, as if it also were not a gift of the Spirit; but by Spirit he meaneth other gifts wherewith Stephen was endued, as zeal, wisdom, uprightness, brotherly love, diligence, integrity of a good conscience; secondly, he expresseth the principal kind. Therefore, he signifieth that Stephen did excel first in faith, and, secondly, in other virtues; so that it was evident that he had abundance of the grace of the Spirit. He doth not so greatly commend the rest, because undoubtedly they were inferior to him. Moreover, the ancient writers do, with great consent, affirm that this Nicholas, which was one of the seven, is the same of whom John maketh mention in the Revelation, (Revelation 2:15,) to wit, that he was an author of a filthy and wicked sect; forasmuch as he would have women to be common. For which cause we must not be negligent in choosing ministers of the Church. For if the hypocrisy of men do deceive even those which are most vigilant and careful to fake heed, what shall befall the careless and negligent? Notwithstanding, if when we have used such circumspection as is meet, it so fall out that we be deceived, let us not be troubled out of measure; forasmuch as Luke saith that even the apostles were subject to this inconvenience. Some will ask this question, then, what good shall exhortation do? to what use serveth prayer, seeing that the success itself showeth that the election was not wholly governed by the Spirit of God? I answer, that this is a great matter that the Spirit directed their judgments in choosing six men; in that he suffereth the Church to go astray in the seventh, it ought to seem no absurd thing. For it is requisite that we be thus humbled divers ways, partly that the wicked and ungodly may exercise us; partly that, being taught by their example, we may learn to examine ourselves thoroughly, lest there be in us any hidden and privy starting-corners of guile; 353353     “Occulti fraudis recessus,” hidden recesses of guile. partly that we may be more circumspect to discern, and that we may, as it were, keep watch continually, lest we be deceived by crafty and unfaithful men. Also it may be that the ministry of Nicholas was for a time profitable, and that he fell afterward into that monstrous error. And if so be it he fell in such sort from such an honorable degree, the higher that every one of us shall be extolled, let him submit himself unto God with modesty and fear.

6. Having prayed, they laid their hands upon them. Laying on of hands was a solemn sign of consecration under the law. To this end do the apostles now lay their hands upon the deacons, that they may know that they are offered to God. Notwithstanding, because this ceremony should of itself be vain, they add thereunto prayer, wherein the faithful commend unto God those ministers whom they offer unto him. This is referred unto the apostles, for all the people did not lay their hands upon the deacons; but when the apostles did make prayer in the name of the Church, others also did add their petitions. Hence we gather that the laying on of hands is a rite agreeing unto order and comeliness, forasmuch as the apostles did use the same, and yet that it hath of itself no force or power, but that the effect dependeth upon the Spirit of God alone; which is generally to be thought of all ceremonies.

VIEWNAME is study