The appointment of deacons in Acts and the subsequent story of Stephen is an interesting bit of Scripture.
In Acts chapter 6, Greek believers in the church found that their widows were not being looked after with the same care and frequency as Jewish widows. The twelve apostles thought that the task of looking after the needs of the church, while not being so important as to take them away from their task of preaching and prayer, was nevertheless so important it necessitated the creation of a new office in the church. You may think that the only thing needed in men who were supposed to hand out food would be a sense of honesty and the ability to count. But here is the job description the apostles give: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:3). So let it be said, so let it be done. Seven deacons.
Then the story shifts to follow Stephen, who will be martyred in the next chapter. He’s described as being full of faith and the Spirit, full of grace and power. He speaks with wisdom and the Spirit, and he performs signs and wonders among the people. Naturally, therefore, the religious leaders snatch him.
When Stephen is falsely accused and stands before the religious leaders to make his defense, we see the wisdom that make him a candidate for deaconry in the first place. I see eight facets of Stephen’s wisdom in Acts 7:
- His respect. Stephen has just been falsely accused by some of the most notorious rats in history. I mean, the religious leaders were bad in the Gospels, but in Acts they’re downright skeevy. And when called upon to make a defense, Stephen addresses them as “brothers and fathers.” We know he has some choice things to say about them, and he gets there by the end of his speech, but he doesn’t insult where he doesn’t have to. That’s wise.
- His calm. Similarly, Stephen is calm and collected. I’m not sure what is meant by “his face was like the face of an angel,” at the end of chapter 6, but Stephen is certainly collected and in possession of himself in chapter 7. He doesn’t jump to his defense, or to counterattack. He respectfully begins to construct an argument, taking the time to develop a common understanding of the redemptive-historical narrative of which the present has become a part.
- His knowledge of the Bible’s facts. Wisdom isn’t limited to Bible facts, but it certainly is wise to have that knowledge to hand, just as it is wise to go camping with matches and a flashlight. Stephen has spent time learning the Bible, so that now, when he is called upon to speak, he can do so in an informed manner.
- His knowledge of the Bible’s meaning. More than facts, Stephen has an understanding of what the Bible means—what its major episodes are, and the salient features of those episodes for the point he’s trying to make.
- His knowledge of the Bible’s purpose. Going even further, Stephen that the Scriptures events and patterns point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. He sees that Israel’s story points towards and is ultimately caught up in something far greater than Israel, and he is able to communicate that to his audience.
- His ability to interpret present events. Stephen is able to read the times and to see that what is happening now is downstream of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is what the entire Old Testament was pointing toward. He sees correlations between events in the Old Testament and his present and makes correct judgments about those correlations.
- His moral discernment. Having made his case from history, Stephen shows discernment in seeing through the veil of moral rectitude and superiority that the religious leaders have put up to the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy that characterizes them.
- His courageous and prophetic stand. Wisdom is right understanding wedded to right action, and Stephen’s wisdom goes beyond an ability to read people and the Bible. Having made his case, Stephen ends his speech by calling the religious leaders to account for their sin and their failure to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. He sticks it to them, not because he is angry or afraid or defensive, but because that’s what prophets do—they take God’s word and hold the world up to its standard.
Stephen was quite a man, and shows an incredible heart of wisdom, and he was a deacon. We still have deacons today in our churches, often, it seems, chosen because they’re good with a hammer or have a strong back. What would it look like if we sought deacons who not only had the ability to care for the congregation, but the wisdom to know when and how to best carry out that care?