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Deacons in Acts 6

by Brant Pitre May 29, 2020 0 Comments


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And speaking of the Sacraments, we can turn back to the first reading for today.  This is from Acts 6:1-7.  This is the famous story of the choosing of the seven righteous men to be what later would go on to be called deacons.  So let's look at the story for just a minute together.  The first readings says this:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.  And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."  And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch'orus, and Nica'nor, and Ti'mon, and Par'menas, and Nicola'us, a proselyte of Antioch.  These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.  And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

So what is this describing?  Well basically it's another example of the Church, during the Easter season, giving us a window on the early days of Christianity, on the birth of the Church as described in the book of Acts.  And just like we've seen Peter preaching and the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism, so now, from the Acts of the Apostles, we get a description of the origin of the Sacrament of the Diaconate, of the first level of what we call Holy Orders.  So what was the origin of this?  Well what happened was there were two factions in the Jerusalem Church.  There were the Hellenists (this was a word for Greek speaking Jewish Christians; like Jews who lived in Jerusalem but who spoke Greek) and then the Hebrews, who were were Hebrew or Aramaic — that is debated — speaking Jewish Christians as well.  And these two different linguistic groups are struggling with one another because some of the widows of the Greek speaking ones are being neglected in the daily distribution of food and clothing and things like that, which would be particularly important for widows because they didn’t have any source of income. 

So they are bringing this to the apostles and the apostles basically say “look, our apostolic ministry of the word and prayer is taking all of our time.  We need men who will be appointed to assist us with particularly the ministry of charity.”  In other words, ministering and serving those who were poor or who were in need.  So they choose these seven men and they lay hands on them and appoint them to that task.  Now in a first century Jewish context, this is very, very important, the laying on of hands was a rite.  It was a well-established rite that was used in the Old Testament to appoint men either to the priesthood, like the sons of Aaron, or to being Levites, who were ministers who assisted the priests in the Temple.  So in the Old Testament you had basically three levels of ministry in the Temple.  You had the high priest, Aaron and his descendants, then you had the priests who were within the family of Aaron and then you had the Levites, which were the rest of the tribe of Levi; and they would assist the priests in the Temple.  They didn’t offer sacrifice themselves, but they helped with the ministry of Temple service. 

The same thing happens in the New Testament Church.  The Apostles here appoint these seven men to function much like the Levites did in the Old Testament, to be assistants to the apostles and their ministry.  And in this case, the Greek word here when Peter says “to serve tables” is diakoneō, and we get the word deacon from that.  In fact, later on in Paul's letters, like 1 Timothy 3, these men are going to be called diakonos.  So they are going to be called deacons.  That's the origin of today what we call the diaconate.  So the choosing of the seven deacons here represents for us a very interesting and important window into the ministry of deacons in the early Church.  Deacons have been part of the Church from the beginning and note well here that an essential part of diaconal ministry is the ministry of charity, the ministry to the poor and the ministry to the needy within the Christian community.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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