The world’s first church, the church of Jerusalem, was colossal in terms of sheer numbers. Acts 4:4 puts the number of men at 5,000. If we assume there was one woman per man, that’s 10,000 members. If we assume there was one woman and one child per man, that’s 15,000 members. Furthermore, both Acts 5:14 and Acts 6:1 speak of multitudes of men and women being added to the fold even after that. So, I feel safe in saying that the church consisted of at least 20,000 people, perhaps considerably more.
In a church that size, internal conflict is inevitable. Somebody is going to get mad at somebody else over something. And that’s what happened. The church members classified under the heading “Hellenists” (“Grecians” K.J.V.) brought a formal accusation to church leadership (the 12 apostles) against the church members classified under the heading “Hebrews” (Acts 6:1). Keep in mind, though, that both of these groups were Jews. The Gentiles wouldn’t be ushered into the church age until a bit later (Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-48).
The “Hellenists” were the “out-of-town” Jews. They were Jews who had grown up outside the land of Israel. They spoke Greek in addition to whatever specific languages each of their local regions used. They had been raised in Greek culture. They used the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Because they had spent their lives living among the Gentiles, they weren’t particularly obsessed with keeping the Mosaic law. These were the foreign Jews who had made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem to observe the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:5), had heard that group of approximately 120 of Christ’s followers speaking in their foreign languages (Acts 2:6-12), had responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:37-39), and had become part of the Jerusalem church’s original 3,000 members (Acts 2:41).
Their counterparts in the church were the “Hebrews.” These were the “home folk” Jews. They were Jews who had grown up in Israel. They spoke Aramaic. They had been raised in Jewish culture. They used the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament. Their lives were dominated by keeping the Mosaic law. Many of them had been living in Jerusalem on that famous day of Pentecost and still had homes there (Acts 2:46). Others of them had made the trip to Jerusalem from their homes in either the northern part of the country or the southern part of it and had become part of the church.
Church members from different homelands? From different backgrounds? Speaking different languages? Using different translations of the Bible? Placing a different level of importance upon the Old Testament law? Let’s admit that any one of these things has serious potential to destroy church unity. Frankly, we have to marvel that the church of Jerusalem made it without a church fight as long as it did!
But what was the fight about anyway? What was the charge the Hellenist Jews brought before the apostles concerning the Hebrew Jews? Well, it had to do with that communal system of support by which the church functioned (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). Human nature being what it is, you just had to figure that the good will that was required for such a system to function smoothly would eventually start to take on some water.
The Hellenist church members accused the Hebrew church members of neglecting the Hellenist widows in regards to the daily distribution of food. Since the church had made it this far without this charge arising, obviously the Hellenist widows were receiving some food each day. The problem must have been that they weren’t receiving as much food as the Hebrew widows. (At least that was the opinion of the Hellenists.) And was the complaint legitimate? The Bible doesn’t tell us. My guess is there was at least some truth in the accusation. After all, favoritism can crop up so easily, especially in situations where the group lines of contrast are drawn so clearly.
Regardless of whether or not the accusation was true, the apostles had to render a verdict. A serious charge had been made and it couldn’t be ignored. So, how will they decide? What course of action will they settle upon? The previous time a problem had arisen within the church, the offending parties had both been struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). Will this new problem result in more deaths? That answer will be the subject of my next post. So until then, stay tuned….