The good days are over, at least those exceptionally good days that marked the start of the Christian era. We began our study of the early church in Acts 2:42 with a description of what seems to be an absolutely model congregation: a church devoted to “the apostles’ teaching” (that is, to the truth of the Gospel and the Scriptures), “the fellowship” (that is, to an appreciation of and a genuine relationship to one another), “the breaking of bread” (that is, to the sacraments God had given to the church), and “prayer” (that is, to a true devotional life). Following a description like that, we are not surprised to read that God blessed the church richly. It had “the favor of all the people” and “the Lord added to [its] number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). We found the same thing at the end of chapter 4. There the believers are described as having been “one in heart and mind.” They “shared everything they had” and spent their time praising God and “testify[ing] to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” before the people (vv. 32-33). This adds a description of the church’s work in terms of energetic witnessing.
Unfortunately, when we came to chapter 5, we discovered the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira followed by their sudden deaths. And now, in chapter 6, we find another problem. Clearly the unusually good days were past history.
This problem was quite different from the one involving Ananias and Sapphira, however. The first was about deception. In chapter 6, we have a different kind of problem. This was not a case of anybody being particularly evil, lying to the Holy Spirit or something of that nature. It is a question of administration, resulting from the church’s growing pains. The people of Jerusalem spoke different languages. We know this because of Pentecost, where a great list of peoples “each heard [the apostles] speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6). Among these many languages two were most prominent: Aramaic (a form of classical Hebrew, spoken by those of Jewish descent) and Greek (spoken by those who had settled in Judah as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great three hundred years earlier). Greek was the lingua franca of the day. These two languages resulted, quite understandably, in two main divisions of the church, and it was this that led to the problem.
Actually, it was a misunderstanding—or, as we might say today, “a communications problem.” Those in the Greek-speaking community began to complain against those in the Aramaic-speaking congregations that the Greek widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
We have not been told anything about any distributions of food thus far. But presumably this is because in Luke’s day everybody just naturally understood what was involved. One of the duties imposed on Jewish people by law was the care of widows and orphans. There were times when this was neglected, of course. The Minor Prophets frequently chastise the people of their day for this failure. But generally one just could not pretend to be a pious Israelite while neglecting the care of these persons.
The early church apparently followed this pattern with its own widows. For those who were Jews, there were provisions for meeting the needs of the orphans and widows through the temple authorities. Money was regularly collected for that purpose. But relations were not all that good between the temple authorities and the early Christian community. So rather than depend on the temple authorities to take care of their widows, which they might have had a legal right to expect, these early communities were taking care of the widows by themselves.1
It seems that the widows of the Greek-speaking communities were neglected, or at least the Greek division of the church thought they were. We do not know why. It may be that the Jewish Christians were thinking of themselves more as Jews than as Christians, were depending on the Jewish state to take care of their needs, and were assuming that the Greek-speakers would have separate means of dealing with their own problems. Or perhaps there was just an unequal distribution, the widows of the Greek congregations just not getting enough. Whatever the case, misunderstandings developed and the objection was raised.
1There is a lesson here for our own relationship to civil government. Today’s church is all too ready to have the civil government take care of social problems which are rightly its own responsibility. We would be better off (and more biblical) if we took care of them ourselves.