7/4/2021: Message: Problems, Proclamation, Provision, and Peace | Scripture: Acts 6:1-7 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Last week, we sought to answer the question: why? Why do we need to change the bylaws of TCCBC to possess an elder and deacon distinction? This week, we sought to answer the question: what? What does the distinction between elders and deacons look like? To answer this question, we looked at Acts 6:1-7, which isn’t the actual institution of elders and deacons, but it establishes a pattern for distinguishing those who have charge over the ministry of the Word and those who are called to service in other areas of the church, such as serving tables. Ultimately, it is from our understanding that God is a God over all of our lives that the church undertakes to supply for the needs of all its people–even for the least of its members (just as Christ came to save the least of us sinners). We do not only serve the soul with the Word, although this is primary, we also seek to meet the needs of the body. In so doing, the church is not only able to flourish in its internal witness of the gospel, but it is also able to abound in the making of disciples throughout the world. When there is integrity in the fullness of our service, there is no reason why others might second guess the validity of what we believe. The gospel permeates within so that it might be magnified without.
- Pastor Stephen discussed widows and their disposition within the world–as those who are left to the mercy and aid of others. How does the ministry to the widows help display the gospel within the Jerusalem church? Why is the gospel particularly emphasized in fulfilling the need of these Greek-speaking widows?
- Why didn’t the apostles simply take the time to make sure that this need was met themselves?
- For those who are called to the ministry of the Word, are they called to serve? If so, what does their service entail?
- For those who are called to the ministry of “serving tables,” how broadly are they called to serve? How are they different from those who are charged with the ministry of the Word?
- How are those appointed with the ministry of “serving tables” the same as those charged with the ministry of the Word?
- Who is Stephen (don’t say your pastor) in this text, and what makes him such an extraordinary “servant” (i.e. Look at Acts 7 and the sermon of Stephen)? What qualities about Stephen should we expect from our own church deacons? What qualities should we not expect?
- What is the result of a church that takes care of both its soul and body needs? Where do we derive this sense of wholeness from? Why is God the perfect example of how we care for one another in both the Word and deed?
- What stops you from a heart attitude that reflects the theology you have about who God is?
- Do you aspire to roles of service or to the ministry of the Word in your own life? Is it good to aspire to such things? Why (include Scriptural references if you can)?
- Honest Question: If our church were to ask itself to think of men and women who are reputable and full of the Spirit and wisdom, would you consider yourself to be one of those men or women? Why or why not?
- Who within your own life could you serve and display the gospel to more?
- How is God challenging you to greater service in your own community and within your church?
- Why do you serve? Do you grumble and complain when you do? Are you begrudging those moments where extra effort is required of you?
- Do you give honour and praise to God for the ways he’s equipped you already to serve? Do you give honour and praise to God for the opportunities he’s given to you to expand your areas of influence and service? Do you give honour and praise to God when you’ve completed an act of service?
In last week’s sermon on 1 Timothy 3:14-16, Paul tells us that he was worried about the external forces threatening the internal unity of the church. This week, Luke discusses an internal dilemma to the church that threatens the progress of the gospel as it goes out into the world—the solution to both problems comes down to the proper orientation of the church. So, look here with me now at Acts 6:1-7—TWoL:
Now, at this time, while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So, the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Since a young age, I’ve always had a tendency to look at things with rose-coloured glasses. I wasn’t always naturally critical of everything and everyone, but I can remember the specific conversation that led me to become more discerning in my evaluation of things and people. I was eleven, and the first Harry Potter movie had just come out. I remember leaving the theatre in love with everything I had just seen. There before me was Hollywood’s portrayal of one of my favourite books of all time, and I thought they’d done everything perfectly—Hogwarts, Hagrid, Ron, Harry, Hermione… So, when I met up the next day with some of my best friends at church, I asked them how they liked it—ready to gush to them about how much I loved it! However, before I could speak, one friend in particular, her name is Roxanne, began to tell me all the bad things about the movie. Harry was ugly. Ron was not who she imagined. Voldemort was cheesy. Most all, Hermione could not act. It was this last critique that struck me. How did Roxanne figure out that Hermione’s acting was terrible? How does an eleven-year-old discern bad acting from good acting? More importantly for me was the question, “Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I notice the bad acting?” That event really set a spark in me to figure how to better look at the world, rather than romanticize everything. Now, I still see things with rose-coloured glasses, but this particular event taught me a little bit about reality. Reality is not always what we perceive it to be. It’s nice to go about the world and to think everything is fine, but to do so is to lie to yourself and to put yourself in danger because people aren’t all good, things aren’t all good. I was awakened in this particular event as to the importance of what it means to consider things as they really are.
Today, in our text, we come to a point in Acts where things have been going really well. There’s been this period of unprecedented unity and growth in the Jerusalem Church, both in fellowship and common possessions. But Luke, in Acts 6, tells us of a problem that stirs within the church that threatens to undo everything, and how the apostles are forced to step in. Our proposition this morning based on this passage is as follows: The Proper Organization of God’s People Enables Effective Witness in the World. However, before organization can take place, a church must figure out its priorities, and Luke gives us four of these priorities in this passage:
- A Priority for Distinction
- A Priority for Service in Proclamation
- A Priority for Service in Provision; and,
- A Priority for God’s Wisdom Revealed
1) A Priority for Distinction
See here with me in verses 1 and 2, a problem arises in the church, and it’s threatening to undo all the good that’s come about through the preaching of the gospel in chapters 1 to 5—that’s what verse 1 means when it says, “while the disciples were increasing”—it’s referring to the growing effect of gospel-preaching that the apostles are doing in Jerusalem.
To clarify, the word “disciple” here is referring to the community of Christians in that day—the word “Christian” hadn’t developed yet at this point. It was around 35 A.D. in Jerusalem, so people and the church as a whole were still figuring out how to do things, what to call people, and gauging who should be responsible over the different
The specifics of the problem that arise in the second half of verse 1 aren’t drawn out here, but we know the important details. There were Greek-speaking Jewish widows who were being neglected in the common distribution of goods, like food. The church was living in a shared community within Jerusalem, and its citizens comprised of both Hebrew-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews. Now, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish widows, it seems, were getting sufficient provisions, but for some reason the Greek-speaking widows were being passed over (widows had to be particularly cared for in that day, because when their husbands died, they’d receive nothing—they were considered outcasts in their society). And the problem that they were receiving deficient goods threatened to break up everything that the apostles had worked to put together.
Recall with me, the demand that Paul makes to the Ephesian church for Jews and Gentiles to associate together. There was a similar divide here in Jerusalem between Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews. But through the gospel, these two groups are brought together to live in common. Then suddenly, Hellenistic widows are being neglected and Greek-speaking Jews are reconsidering their allegiance and aid to Hebrew-speaking Jews. Ultimately, division is at stake here, and these new Christians can’t resolve the issue on their own. They need intervention—clearly neither side was backing down.
So, the twelve apostles—can you imagine how formidable this scene is—widows aren’t getting enough, so “the twelve” have to get involved. In seminary, we’re taught to preach the drama of Scripture, and there’s drama riddled throughout this passage. To me, this scene looks like warring factions, everyone’s yelling at each other, no one can agree on what to do, then a cloud of smoke rolls in and with it comes swooshing in Peter and the twelve like Batman and the Justice League. When Batman steps in, there’s a reverent “oh no.” Just think of any superhero movie, when the superhero steps into the scene for the first time, everyone stops to look to see what they’ll do first. Well, when the apostles step in, everyone stops talking to listen. When Peter, or one of the apostles, opens his mouth, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It might be another Pentecost moment, it might be another sermon on the Day of the Lord, it might be another Ananias and Sapphira. In other words, there was a common understanding that when the apostles spoke, God spoke.
And what they say sets the ground for a Christian understanding of roles within the church that will become the norm around 60 A.D. when Paul writes to the Philippians—but here, we only see a reflection of what is to come—this isn’t the establishment of elders and deacons, but it serves to show that within the church, a certain order is required. And we see this in what they say, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” See the distinction? Those who do the work of the Word of God and those who serve tables.
Now, let’s be clear, they’re not saying that serving tables—serving people with the things that they need—is unimportant. They’re not saying it’s beneath them. They’re recognizing that there is supposed to be a priority of distinction. God is pleased and desires for them to place their attention upon the preaching of his Word. There is a difference between the apostle who is called to preach the Word of God and the helper who provides for the need of these widows. To serve tables is a GOOD thing. But, for the apostles to do this good thing would be bad, because it would prevent them from continuing what they were doing in verse 1—working to increase the disciples. Both responsibilities of the Word and of serving tables are both fundamentally important to the church. Yet not every person in the church is meant to prioritize the same thing. Distinctions are necessary because where we fail to make them, there might result not only negative consequences for us, but for our communities and the world.
The apostles are making a distinction here. As Christians are increasing, as the church grows, they can’t be responsible for everything, they need to keep at the ministry of the Word, as others step up to serve in the ministry of provision.
2) A Priority for Service in Proclamation
The first distinction that the apostles make is that there must be a priority within the church upon the Word, which they tell us in verse 4 is prayer and “ministry of the Word,” which most take to mean the preaching of Scripture. This must be something that takes place both inside and outside the church. Why is this their priority? Because it’s through prayer and the preaching of the gospel that operate as the means of saving sinners throughout the world. God’s desire is for his plan of salvation to be made known in all places, and it is through this specific, apostolic work that disciples are being made—not just mere Christians or people who say they believe in Jesus Christ. They are making true disciples that walk humbly and fervently with the Lord. So, yes, there is a distinction for this because without prayer and gospel preaching, the world will be lost.
Now, I do want to take a brief pause here in the text and evaluate what it is specifically that the ministry of the Word is in verse 2 and 4 because this ministry will become the focus of those who come after the apostles, namely, elders and pastors. As I’ve already stated, most commentators suppose that this “ministry” is primarily preaching (and praying). But is that all that’s involved?
Preaching seems to be implied based on the pattern of the apostles’ ministry throughout chapters 1-5. Their primary task is to establish churches throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and they do this by preaching the gospel widely and fervently. So, apostles and would-be elders are to focus their time on the ministries of the Word in praying and preaching.
However, we have to note here that Luke in Acts 6 doesn’t talk about preaching specifically. Instead, he says in verse 4, that those charged with responsibility to the Word are to carry out its ministry. The word “ministry” is the same word for “service,” and both come from the Greek word διακονια or, as a verb, διακονεω. Perhaps, you hear that familiar English word that we know as “deacon,” which means “to serve.” Now, we know that apostles and elders aren’t deacons. Very often, in the church, we say that deacons are servants of the church, and elders are the teachers, preachers, and shepherds. But let’s get something straight, elders are servants too. They are servants just like deacons are servants. Both are called in their capacities to serve the people of God, but, again, the way this service plays out is different. Apostles and elders are called, particularly, to serve people with the Word.
Why am I saying this? I’m saying this because implicit with carrying out a proper ministry of the Word, elders are supposed to do more than just praying and preaching. They are to serve in the areas where the Word of God is concerned. As we see in this passage, not only do the apostles pray and preach, they also lead their people. They’re the ones in charge of giving instruction on what the church should do in light of their Hellenistic problem. They’re the ones who dispense discipline. 1 Timothy 3:5 says that elders are to care for God’s church, then in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, elders are to labour over their members in the Lord, and they are to be accorded respect. In other words, elders are called to be leaders of Christian service in a broad way. Their ministry of the Word is not confined to one or two things, rather they are accountable for all the things that the Word of God applies to.
This leadership is not just over matters of preaching and praying, but also church discipline, counselling, church policy, approval of new ministries, developing and equipping new leaders, determining the church’s ministerial philosophy, hiring new staff, etc. In other words, elders, like the apostles, are called to direct the church in the Word—do everything to point your eyes to Christ glorified, risen, and reigning. That is our job, and it is our joy—to lead you as faithful examples of service in the Word of God. And it is in our broad leadership that among you develops some who show aptitude in particular areas of service that go beyond ministries of the Word, like serving food, or in our contemporary church, helping with A/V, worship, secretarial work, building management, etc.
So, it’s in this ministry of the Word that we see the first distinction. Apostles, elders, and pastors, they’re called to serve the Bible, and this takes many different forms, but primarily, as Luke tells us, we see it in praying and preaching. And it is based on this primary responsibility, that other priorities must be met by other members of the church. And that’s our second distinction. In addition to a priority for service in proclamation, which falls upon apostles and elders, there must be a priority for service in provision.
3) A Priority for Service in Provision
Recognizing that there are many other needs that Christians have, Dr. Luke records this story to remind us that the ministry of the gospel is a total person ministry. Apostles and elders to Luke are doctors for the soul, but doctors for the rest of the body—those spiritually attuned to other needs—are also needed.
Thus, for all the other ministries outside of preaching, teaching, praying, and leading, there are people within the church who are called to serve in these ways. This is what true community and fellowship is supposed to look like. Yes, the primary aspect of the church is the proclamation of the Word, but God desires to be God of your WHOLE LIFE. This is why the apostles make sure that the needs of the Hellenist widows are met by seven elected men. The consideration of all the needs of the congregation reflects a God who has given generously to his people through Christ. If God is perfectly generous, and if he has dealt well with us in the most important way, then wouldn’t he desire to be generous with us in the small things as well? Wouldn’t he want to take care of your daily needs? Wouldn’t he want to make sure that you have food on the table?
I’m not preaching a health and wealth gospel. God doesn’t want to give you what you desire according to your sin or your greed or your pride. No, he wants to give according to your dependence upon him—he wants to give according to what makes you look upon him. He wants you to value him not because he needs the attention but because he desires your very best. Brothers and sisters, the best thing we can do for ourselves today is to know that God desires our best in every way! And he always gives you exactly what you need—he will always give you what brings the most glory to him. This is why true Christians are hardworking people, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians! They don’t ascribe to the prosperity gospel because they are a people who recognize that their lives are a testimony of God’s glorious purpose and work in their lives. God has bought us by the blood of his Son. God owns us. God desires us. God is God over all of us, and he desires to give us what we desire because, ultimately, what we desire is to make much of him!
This is the message that the apostles preach to the Greek and Hebrew-speaking Jews. There is a priority to serve those who need provision because God has provided us with the means to do so. This is the context that serves the “therefore” in verse 3. The instruction is based on the ground that God has provided both the Word for our souls and the necessities for everything else, so that he might show himself to be our God in every way, and that we might lack nothing. This is supposed to be the testimony of the church to the world. God is the God sufficient for all of our needs, and we are the means by which those needs might be met. And in meeting our needs, we then have NO INHIBITIONS! God has satisfied me fully and utterly! Now, I can worship him. The world can know him! Nothing stands in our way as one church to make known the name of Christ in all things! God’s orientation of our lives, the apostles’ orientation of the church, all of it has a purpose, and it isn’t just to give us wholeness and peace, but to bring that peace to the world.
You see, it is on the basis of this theology—that God is a generous giver—that the apostles say, “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The apostles are concerned with a whole-person, whole-congregation satisfaction for the sake of their gospel-proclamation. Notice that the instructions are not to find people who have the most wealth or who can give the most things away, it’s to find people of character. Those who are able to make decisions from a heart that understands that God is a fully encompassing, peace-giving God. They are to be individuals who can make decisions on what to do for people’s external needs because God has met all of their internal needs. They are contented with God and live a life that reflects this contentedness. They are people who have a heart like an apostle, but who are not called, themselves, to apostleship!
You see this in the two main qualifications listed in selecting these servants: 1) that they are reputable—the word here is directly translated, “testified to,” namely, as those who have an outward testimony of faithfulness based on God’s transforming work within their lives, and 2) that they are full of the Spirit and wisdom. Does this not describe the apostles themselves to a certain extent? And yet, they’re looking for others who are full of the Spirit. In other words, every servant of God is sensitive to spiritual things. They understand and are able to make spiritually mature decisions because they, themselves, are spiritually mature. They are individuals who have believed in the gospel, talk the gospel, live the gospel. They are those who have taken such care in their small, personal choices that they can be trusted with the big, church decisions. They’ve entrusted their lives to Christ, and so Christ can entrust his bride to them.
Let’s just look at one of the seven chosen. One of the men selected is named Stephen. He is one who the congregation of Christians in Jerusalem has recognized to be of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Luke says in verse 5 that he is a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Then, later on, in verse 8, he is a man full of grace and power. Then in chapter 7, verse 55, right before he is about to be stoned to death, and right after he’s given his persecutors one of the greatest sermons EVER on the fulfillment of history in Christ, the text says he is full of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that makes Stephen such a good servant to the Hellenistic widows isn’t that he’s the best waiter, but that, by the Spirit and power within him, he exudes spiritual life—he has modeled his life after the life of the apostles who have modeled their own lives after the life of Christ. The gospel is to be so permeating in all that we do that there really should not be any distinction between us other than the fact that we’ve each been called to do different things. The ministry of the Word gives life. The ministry of serving widows gives life. In all things, we as Christians, as we serve in our varying capacities, are in the ministry of giving life, and not just any life, but a God-saturated, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered life. Making these distinctions, drawing clear, God-given responsibilities within the church, is so that this whole Christian life might be made fuller in its witness of the gospel. This witness starts here internally, and then it goes out there powerfully! We have servants in here to help keep the peace, so that we can send servants out there to give peace.
The gospel doesn’t just affect our minds. It’s to affect our whole beings, as it does these seven men, as it does these Hellenistic women, as it does the Jerusalem church. After this text is finished, we never hear about the problem of the church to care for the Hellenistic women again. That’s because it’s assumed that the seven chosen have taken care of it. They are chosen, elected by their church. They are prayed over by the apostles. Then they go out and accomplish the task set before them faithfully without negatively affecting the ministry of the apostles. A church that is properly organized is a church that is made effective in its witness of the gospel to the world. Jordan Peterson is famous for giving talks about how the proper method for changing the world begins with taking care of the disorder in your own life. Well, that truism is the same of the church. How might we become more effective in our witness of the gospel? By taking care of any disorder in our own house. This starts by making the right distinctions—by calling men to the ministry of the Word, and by calling other faithful Christians to the ministry of serving tables. And there’s a purpose to this, and that’s our fourth and final point.
4) A Priority for God’s Wisdom Revealed
What is the purpose and result of making this distinction between those who proclaim and those who provide? What happens when the church is functioning to proclaim the gospel within just as it is doing from without? Verse 7 tells us: “The Word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” In other words, the peace of the gospel that has quieted the issues in the church shall become the peace for those outside of it.
This is what happens when people do what they are called to do. There is no disruption in the increasing spread of God’s Word, disciples increase, and the impossible is achieved. These are Jewish priests that Luke is talking about. LUKE! All through the book of Luke, priests are the bad guys. Then suddenly, here, they’re portrayed as the good guys! They’re given a glowing review! How is that possible? The GOSPEL! THE GOSPEL! What happens when the church operates rightly? The gospel is given full reign to change the world. I’ve made much in this sermon about God’s desire to be a part of your whole life (inside and out). Well, when the church functions properly inside, God’s glory is displayed outside—his peace covers the land.
A church that is faithful internally is a church that will have an unstoppable effect externally. Why? Because we believe in a whole-life changing gospel—where we were once lost in our sinfulness and guilt, we’ve been made into new creatures affected from the heart to our hands. We ground our repentance in a Christ who’s come and died on behalf of our sin and taken upon himself our penalty. In him, we have received or righteousness. In him, we see a God who has not forsaken any aspect of our lives.
It is because of this good news, because of how it has changed my and your life, that I am wholly in support of these changes coming to the bylaws this Fall and to any other change that might bring the gospel into a fuller appreciation. I say this not only because I desire your good, but I also desire the glory of God to cover the earth, and I know it starts here with us. If we are faithful to the task, God will be faithful to his glory. If we do not neglect the preaching of the Word, and if we do not neglect even the widow who the world thinks is useless and unworthy, then God will enable our testimony to change the World.