A Clash of Kingdoms: Community and Power (Acts 5-7)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Acts takes place in the earthy reality of a genuine community, and it does not gloss over the threat that the effects of sin pose to communities. The first two major threats to the Christian community that Luke presents are resource-related issues. As we will see, Ananias and Sapphira, as well as the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking sector of the community, fall into sin in relation to their stewardship of resources and power. For Luke, this defect threatens the very life of the community.
The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) are nothing if not frightful and puzzling. The two, a married couple, sell a piece of property and publicly give the proceeds to the community. However, they secretly hold back a portion of the money for themselves. Peter detects the deception and confronts the two separately. Merely hearing Peter’s accusation causes each of them to fall dead on the spot. To our ears, their fate seems out of proportion to their infraction. Peter acknowledges that they were under no obligation to donate the money: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? he says. And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Private property has not been abolished, and even those in the community of love-for-neighbor may legitimately choose to hold the resources God has entrusted to them. So why does lying about the money bring instant death?
Many attempts have been made to describe the reason for their deaths and even simply to name the sin they committed. It appears, fundamentally, that Ananias and Sapphira’s transgression is they are counterfeit community members. As the scholar Scott Bartchy puts it, “By lying in order to achieve an honor they had not earned, Ananias and Sapphira not only dishonored and shamed themselves as patrons but also revealed themselves to be outsiders, non-kin.” They are not so much misers as imposters.
Their deceit demonstrates that they are still functioning as members of the Roman patronage system, while they pretend to have become members of the Christian love-of-neighbor system. They attempt to look like Barnabas in his other-centered approach to stewarding resources (Acts 4:36-37). But their motivation is actually to gain honor for themselves on the cheap. In so doing, they actually function as part of the Roman patronage economy. They look generous, but they are giving for the sake of status, not love. Moreover, their lie about their stewardship of resources is interpreted by Peter as a lie to the Holy Spirit and to God (Acts 5:3-4). How striking that a lie to the community is equated with a lie to the Spirit of God! And a lie about resources is as serious as a lie about “religious” matters. We have seen already that one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to form God’s people into a community that uses resources in accordance with a deep concern for others. It is not surprising, then, that Ananias and Sapphira’s faked act of generosity is depicted as falsifying the work of the Spirit. Their false generosity and their attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit are a threat to the identity of the Christian community. This is a sober reminder of the serious stakes connected to the Christian community and to our own participation within it.
Ananias and Sapphira’s deceit occurs in the realm of money. What if it occurred in the realm of work itself? What if they had falsely pretended to serve their masters as though serving God (Colossians 3:22-24), or to treat subordinates justly (Colossians 3:25), or to engage in conflict honestly (Matthew 18:15-17)? Would deceiving the Christian community about such things have caused a similarly unacceptable threat to the community? Luke doesn’t report on any such cases in Acts, yet the same principle applies. Genuinely belonging to the Christian community carries with it a fundamental change in our orientation. We now act in all ways—including work—to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to increase our social status, wealth and power.
Themes from the account of Ananias and Sapphira are present in Acts 6:1-7, which marks the first intra-group dispute in the Christian community. The Hellenists are probably Greek-speaking Jews who have returned to Jerusalem from one of the many Diaspora communities in the Roman Empire. The Hebrews are probably Jews who are from the historic land of Israel (Palestine) and who primarily speak Aramaic and/or Hebrew. It takes very little social imagination to see what is happening in this situation. In a community that sees itself as the fulfillment of Israel’s covenant with God, members who are more prototypically Israelite are receiving more of the group’s resources than the others. This sort of situation happens regularly in our world. Those who are most similar to the leaders of a movement on the basis of background, culture, status, and so on, often benefit from their identity in ways unavailable to those who are in some way different.
One of the greatest contributions that Acts makes to a theology of work emerges from the apostles’ response to the intra-community injustice of Acts 6:1-7. The work of administering justice—in this case, by overseeing food distribution—is just as important as the work of preaching the word. This may not be clear at first because of a misleading translation in the NRSV and the NIV:
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.” (Acts 6:2, NRSV)
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. (Acts 6:2, NIV)
The term “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) may sound a little condescending compared to “serving the word of God” (Acts 6:4). Are the Twelve saying that taking care of people’s need for food is less important than preaching the word? One way of interpreting this passage says that waiting on tables is “trivia,” a “humble task” or one of the “lower tasks” in the community. This line of interpretation sees Stephen’s subsequent preaching as the “real” purpose behind the Spirit’s influence in Acts 6:3. There would be no need for the Holy Spirit to get involved in the menial task of managing the allocation of resources, according to this view.
But this reflects a bias in translation not found in the original Greek. When English translations say “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) in contrast to “serving the word” (Acts 6:4) they are using different words—“wait” and “serve"—to translate the same Greek word, diakaneo, which is the original word in both Acts 6:2 and 6:4. It means “to serve.” Therefore, a more literal translation would be “serve tables” and “serving the word." Both are diakaneo, service. There is no reason to use a slighter word for serving tables. Not every English translation displays this bias—for example both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible translate Acts 6:2 as “serve tables” rather than “wait on tables.”
It is not reason [i.e., right] that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (Acts 6:2, KJV)
It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. (Acts 6:2, NASB)
Moreover, just a few words later, in Acts 6:3-4, even the NRSV and the NIV translate the same word as “serving” and “ministry,” respectively.
We, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. (Acts 6:3–4, NRSV)
[We] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4, NIV)
Thus, the Greek original, and some English translations, give the important sense that the work of serving those in need is on a par with the apostolic work of prayer and preaching. The apostles serve the word, and the deacons (as they have come to be called) serve those in need. Their service is qualitatively the same, although the specific tasks and skills are different. Both are essential in the formation of God’s people and for the witness of God’s people in the world. The life of the community depends upon these forms of service, and Luke does not give us the sense that one is more powerful or more spiritual than the other.
Despite all this, could it be argued that the condescension about serving tables is not just a matter of translation but is really present in the disciples’ own words? Could the apostles themselves have imagined that they were chosen to serve the word because they are more gifted than those who are chosen to serve tables? Is that what they mean when they say it would not be right to neglect serving the word in order to serve tables? If so, they would be falling back into something similar to the Roman patronage system, setting themselves up with a status too high to sully by serving tables. They would be substituting a new source of status (gifts of the Holy Spirit) for the old Roman one (patronage). The gospel of Christ goes deeper than this! In the Christian community there is no source of status. A more consistent understanding would be that if you're called to serve the word of God, you shouldn't neglect serving the word in order to do something else. Likewise, if you're called to serve tables, you shouldn't neglect serving tables in order to do something else. People may be called to different tasks, but there is no biblical reason to regard some callings as higher than others.
Ironically, one of the table-servers, Stephen, turns out to be even more gifted as a preacher than most of the apostles (Acts 6:8-7:60). Yet despite his preaching gift, he is set aside for the service of resource distribution. At that moment, at least, it was more important to God’s purposes for him to serve as a table-server than as a word-server. For him, no lingering hunger for status stands in the way of accepting this call to serve tables.
This has strong resonances in today's world. Frequently, workers in food service occupations—the modern equivalent of "serving tables"—find themselves in low-status jobs with inadequate pay, poor benefits, high turnover, and difficult or even abusive working conditions. This passage from the book of Acts speaks directly to this situation. In God's eyes, working in food service—or any other occupation—is not a trivial or demeaning job, but a form of service on par with the work of the Apostles. What can Christians do to make this vision a reality in today's places of work?
The workers best suited to heal the ethnic divide in the Acts 6 community are qualified because they are “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Like those qualified for prayer and preaching, the table-servers’ ability is the result of spiritual power. Nothing less than the power of the Spirit makes possible meaningful, community-building, peace-making work among Christians. This passage helps us to see that all work that builds the community or, more broadly, that promotes justice, goodness, and beauty, is—in a deep sense—service (or ministry) to the world.
In our churches, do we recognize the equal ministry of the pastor who preaches the word, the mother and father who provide a loving home for their children, and the accountant who gives a just and honest statement of her employer’s expenditures? Do we understand that they are all reliant upon the Spirit to do their work for the good of the community? Every manner of good work has the capacity—by the power of the Spirit—to be a means of participation in God’s renewal of the world.