Intro: Acts 6:1-7– Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (ESV)
When we study specific events in the Bible there is a question we should always ask – Why is this event included in the inspired record? What fundamental point(s) is the author (Luke) making here?
I. The Context: A Growing Church – Luke, the historian, provides a positive report on the spread of the gospel in the book of Acts. One recurring statement in his treatise on the early church is that the church was growing.
A. Notice his description of the infant church at Jerusalem;
• Acts 2:41, “those who received the word were baptized and there were added that day about 3,000 souls.”
• Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
• Acts 4:4, – “Many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about 5,000.”
• Acts 5:14, “More than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”
B. These observations point to the context of the event of Acts 6 – Both before the event and after the event of Acts 6 Luke states again that the church is growing: 6:1 – Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number; 6:7 – and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem. I am convinced that these are not arbitrary statements. Luke wants us to notice that the church was continuing to grow despite the obstacles it faced. That is what this event is about – How the early church overcame the obstacles it faced, and grew.
II. The Complaint: A Neglected Physical Need – –It is not hard to notice that the Lord’s people faced opposition and obstacles to their mission from the very beginning – the arrest and imprisonment of the apostles in acts 3 & 4, the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. This event chronicles another obstacle in the form of a complaint from within. There are two elements of the threat to notice.
A. A Threat to the Unity of the Church: The complaint brought to the apostles revealed a conflict between the Hellenistic Jews ((Greek-speaking – those from outside of Judea) and the Hebrews (Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic). The Hellenists complained that their widows were being “neglected in the daily distribution”. This is reference to the distribution of food that was a part of the benevolent work of the Jerusalem church. The Jewish community took the responsibility to care for widows very seriously. But there were many more Hebrew widows in Palestine than (Hellenistic) Greek-speaking widows. It would be easy to overlook some.
1. The cultural divide of the society impacted the church in Jerusalem, even as it does today. It is difficult to leave those emotions and prejudices behind. Left unsolved this problem had the potential to divide the church and discredit the message of the apostles. Although we often highlight the apostles’ decision to not get personally involved in the solution, we should not conclude that this was just an insignificant physical problem or not a major threat to the church’s unity and mission. Two things point to the seriousness and nature of the problem:
a. The apostles addressed the problem immediately. They did conclude that it would solve itself, or even that the complaint was unfounded. The immediately called the disciples together.
b. The apostles assigned spiritual men to the task. These not just any Greek Christian men. These were men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. They were respected by others, submissive to God’s words, and able to make prudent decisions. These spiritual qualifications given by the apostles confirms to us that this problem was a serious spiritual threat to the church and demanded a spiritually-oriented solution.
B. A Threat to the Spiritual Mission of the Church: This church was still under the personal leadership of the apostles. What could possibly be a threat to their mission? These apostles had already been imprisoned and threaten to cease and desist from preaching the word. But Satan was not done yet. He was still most interested in disrupting the preaching of the gospel, primarily being done by these apostles. What was his next ploy? To get the apostles to solve the problem in the wrong way.
1. The text implies that the complaint comes to the apostles from the Christians at Jerusalem. I would contend that it came as a personal plea to the apostles. “We need YOU to take care of this need – stop this neglect and inequality.” Notice the apostles’ answer in Acts 6:2– It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. (NKJV) That sounds a little defensive doesn’t it. Someone may have suggested that the apostles themselves need to do this work.
a. The word translated as “right” here is arestos (ar-es-tos) and is also translated as pleasing or desirable. The implication is that it would not be pleasing to God for the apostles to “serve tables” instead of preaching the word.
b. The term “wait on tables” (NIV) or “serve tables” (NKJV, ESV) might make us think of a waiter serving our food in a restaurant, or the actual distribution of the meals. Although that might be included, the word for tables often points to banking tables (such as the tables of the money-changers) and denoted the important task of handling the money needed to purchase the food. This is an important ministry. – not anybody can handle the money and see that this done. But it is not as high a priority as the preaching of the word and prayer.
2. I want you to notice something in the text that would imply that this was a part of the threat posed in this complaint. Luke links the word of God in v. 2 with the word of God in v. 7The apostolic answer in v. 2 is that it would not be right to abandon (leave) the word of God… and in vs. 7 he reports the effect of not leaving the word of God, even for such an important ministry – “And the word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.”
3. In other words, the continued growth of the church was because the apostles did not leave the spiritual mission of the church to focus on this problem but put their faith in the power of the word and prayer. Whatever tempts us to leave off the preaching of the word and prayer is a major threat to the church and the Devil’s ploy. There was a wrong way to solve the problem.
III. The Solution – Servants in the Church; there are some things for us to learn in a look at the apostolic solution. As we mentioned the apostles directed the church to choose 7 spiritual and wise men to “serve tables”. V. 5-6… they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
A. We also notice that all 7 men had Greek names. It would have been very unusual for a Hebrew-speaking Jew from Palestine to have a Greek name. We might conclude that the apostles placed the complainers in charge of the solution. They were the ones who knew the problem the best, and who it was who was being neglected. The apostles were not afraid that these men who use their position to escalate the problem or cause more division.
1. There is no attempt to take a vote or please the majority. The Hebrew Christians did not contend that since they were the majority there needed to be 4 Hebrew servants and 3 Greek servants! No one was fighting for their rights or defending themselves. The focus was on solving the problem. Paul told the Philippians to look out for others’ interests ahead of our own (Philippians 2:4).
B. Were these 7 men deacons? Christians and scholars are divided in the answer. The qualifications of 1 Tim 3 are not listed here, but the general character would be the same. They are not referred to as deacons here or elsewhere. But they are appointed by the church to minister (diakonos – v. 6). I do not think it is unreasonable or unscriptural to make the connection.
C. Whether we view them as “proto-deacons”, as some refer, or not, we should not overlook the use of the word diakonos in this text. These men were appointed to serve other Christians. They were not hired organizers, or professional program managers. They were servants. Their qualifications for the job assigned included a demonstrated spiritual submission to God.
D. What was Not the solution to the problem:
1. The apostles did not throw out the complainers. They took their concerns seriously and were able to properly assess the application of the word of God to the circumstance. Not all complaints are equal. Leaders have the responsibility to discern between an expediency or matter of personal preference, and a real violation of God’s will. They did not take personal offense at the complaint, but humbly sought a solution.
2. The church did not shun or ignore the complainers – It is easy for people to just ignore those who seem controversial or expose problems. We might unconsciously hope that it fe ignore them enough they will leave and go somewhere else.
• Col 3:12-15 – 12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.
• 1 Peter 4:8 – 8 And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”
3. The complainers did not start a new church down the road. – This is how so many problems are addressed among God’s people. This is not the growth that God has in mind. New churches should be at testimony of our ability to work together, not a sign that we refuse to. In Acts 6, there was no Hebrew congregation and Hellenistic congregation. Doing that never crossed their mind. God calls us to resolve our differences and protect each other’s consciences.
IV. The Result – A United and Growing Church –Acts 6:7 – And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
A. It thrills me to see God wins out. Once again, Luke tells us that Satan’s attempt to derail the preaching of the word failed. That is not always the case with us. Sometimes we allow the obstacles and complaints cause us to lose our focus. We turn our attention toward ourselves to the neglect of our mission to teach the lost.
B. The solution this text promotes is serving others in the manner in which we are capable. Some can teach the word; others can serve tables. Both servants are necessary to the growth of the church. But we must strive to remain together and be united in our mission.
Conclusion: End with a passage we studied a few weeks ago. It certainly fits here… Eph 4:11-16 – And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ.16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part. (HCSB)