The first seven deacons were chosen from among the brethren of the Jerusalem Church to assist the Twelve because the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews who had emigrated to Jerusalem from Roman settlements, were complaining that the Hebrews were neglecting their widows in the Church’s daily distribution of goods.
Acts 6 gives us this history. The seven chosen were Hellenists, each a man with a good reputation who was filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. They were ordained by the Twelve through the sacramental sign of the laying on of hands.
We read in Acts that the apostles ordained these men to the duty of serving at tables so that they could dedicate more of their time to prayer and preaching, or the ministry of the word. The general view is that what is meant here by serving at table is that the deacons would care for the temporal needs of the Christian community while the apostles would care for the spiritual.
Yet in the depictions of Stephen and Philip that follow in Acts neither is seen serving at table, an incongruity noted by a number of Scripture commentators. Instead, each is shown to be a man of deep faith, prayer, wisdom, and knowledge of the Scripture and the Lord’s as yet unwritten Gospel; each is shown to be concerned with bringing the Gospel out into the world with fervor; each is shown to be a master preacher and evangelist.
The inclusion of the experiences of Stephen and Philip in Sacred Scripture tells us much about what the early Church thought about the role of deacons outside of liturgy. While deacons are mentioned in Scripture, and others later are shown to be ministers of the Church’s temporal goods in various writings of Church Fathers, the preachers and evangelists Stephen and Philip receive more attention in Scripture than most of the apostles.
The preaching and martyrdom of Stephen
Stephen is a man “full of grace and power,” a wonderworker. His preaching so upset the various groups that heard him that they conspired against him. He was accused of blasphemy against God and Moses and was taken to the Jewish council.
Before the council and the high priest, Stephen preaches. He masterfully examines the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. He ends by denouncing the Jewish people, and the council, for failing to heed the prophets and persecuting them, and for the betrayal and murder of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
He says to the council: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (RSV-CE)
When the council grows angry, Stephen keeps his sight on Our Lord and filled with the Holy Spirit he has a vision. The heavens open and he sees God’s glory and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.
The council casts him out of the city and stones him to death. Those stoning Stephen leave their garments at the feet of Saul. Yet while he is being stoned, Stephen calls on the Lord to receive his spirit. And like Our Lord on the cross he asks forgiveness of his murderers.
Commentators on Acts 7 have noted the similarity between Stephen and Our Lord’s death. In reading Acts, we see Stephen falsely charged, praying the prayers of Our Lord on the cross, asking the Lord to receive his spirit as Our Lord asked the Father to receive his, and forgiving those who stone him as Our Lord forgave those who crucified him.
From the time of the early Church until today, deacons have been considered as being configured to Our Lord in a special way and being icons of Jesus Christ in the world. Stephen’s preaching and martyrdom illustrate this. He was so configured to Our Lord, so much an icon of Our Lord, that he suffered death by stoning.
We do not know what happened to those in the crowd who left their garments at the foot of Saul, but we do know what happened to Saul. He witnessed Stephen’s stoning and later was converted. He became an apostle, evangelist, missionary, and writer of letters included in Scripture. As can happen with men chosen by God for great things, Saul’s name was changed to Paul.
Scripture shows us how the witness of the Stephen, a deacon, prepared the way for Our Lord’s direct conversion of Saul.
Philip’s preaching, healing, and baptizing
Philip’s story, told in Acts 8, almost immediately follows Stephen’s. Before we get to Philip, however, we read how Saul consented to Stephen’s death and persecuted the Church.
That this persecution comes between the stories of Stephen and Philip only further shows the power of Jesus Christ and the importance of men like Stephen and Philip in following the Lord and bringing the Gospel to others. That the conversion of Saul follows their stories in Acts 9 illustrates the connection between the preaching of Stephen and Saul’s conversion.
Despite the persecution, Philip, later called the Evangelist, and others continue to preach. In Samaria, Philip proclaims Christ and is so filled with the Holy Spirit that his preaching drives out unclean spirits and heals the paralyzed and lame.
Philip’s preaching also overturns the magic of Simon Magus and many were baptized, including Simon himself, although Simon soon falls away and is later cast as the first heretic by St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
Philip’s preaching prepares the way for the apostles Peter and John, who lay hands on those baptized so that they receive the Holy Spirit, an action we call today the sacrament of Confirmation in the Western church or Chrismation in the Eastern churches. The passage marks a clear distinction between deacon and priests-bishops. Philip, as deacon, could baptize, but he could not Confirm or Chrismate, which remains true today.
After Samaria, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to travel to Gaza. There he is sent by the angel to the Ethiopian eunuch, a minister in the court of the Ethiopian queen. The Ethiopian is reading Isaiah, and Philip asks him whether he understands what he is reading, a perfect question from a master evangelist.
When the Ethiopian asks Philip to explain the passage he is reading, Philip opens the passage to him. The Ethiopian is so moved, he asks to be baptized. Once baptized, the Ethiopian rejoices and the Spirit of the Lord sends Philip on to preach in new places.
The Church teaches that the deacon is to be a living icon of Jesus Christ, and that this is the foundation of the deacon’s spirituality. With Stephen and Philip, two of the first deacons, we read of the Church’s Archetypal deacons who lived this spirituality fully.