Saturday 1 June 2013

Surprisingly helpful: Why trusting in Jesus is worthwhile in times of practical need (Acts 6:1-6)

1. A surprising problem

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.
Acts 6:1

The church was experiencing explosive growth. From 120 to 3000 in a single day at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), to 5000 at the last count (Acts 4:4) which was just the tally of “the number of men” - meaning, it was somewhere around seven to ten thousand strong, once you added up the women and children. This was the first megachurch.

So we read, “in these days when the disciples were increasing in number,” (Acts 6:1) a complaint arose. It is surprising because this complaint concerned a minority within the church. The Greek-speaking Christian widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

And yet it was a major problem, to the extent that the apostles would summon “full number of disciples” to discuss this issue. Why? For one thing, it was a potentially divisive problem: The Hellenists arose against the Hebrews. One racial group was making an accusation against another racial group. The Greek-speaking Jews were the second-generation believers in the church. They looked like their fellow Jews, but many read their bibles in Greek instead of the original Hebrew and some couldn’t even speak Hebrew (and those who did, conversed with a slight Roman accent). The accusation had overtones not simply of neglect but discrimination.

Furthermore, the word for “complaint” (Greek: gongusmos) is reminiscent of the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert during the time of the Exodus, directed against Moses and his leadership. This might explain why the apostles took action immediately. It was an accusation against their oversight.

But isn’t this a practical problem? For those of us who come from large churches: Isn’t this a familiar problem? Any church that grows so big in such a short span of time will experience this problem of neglect: Some will inevitably feel left out. As the membership grows and the responsibilities of the leadership multiplies, people will not get the same kind of attention from their leaders as they would have when the church was smaller in size.

And yet, here in the early church we find a response that is truly surprising from the apostles: They address this very practical problem with the attention it deserves. They gather in the whole church. Why? Because in these days when the church is growing and multiplying and experiencing tremendous blessing, they understand that it is all the more important that the needs of the few be met, not less.

As a church grows, its role in loving the individual - in loving each and every member - grows as well; it doesn’t diminish. That is a challenging thought for those of us who come from large churches. We ought to be more attentive, not less, towards the individual - especially those who are most likely to be neglected; especially those who are most vulnerable. Paul illustrated this principle in 1 Corinthians 12, when he wrote:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
1 Corinthians 12:21-22

Who are the seemingly “weaker” members in your church? Who are the “widows” in your church? The bible tells us we ought to look at them as indispensable. As a church grows numerically, so also should our love towards each individual believer.

2. A surprising solution

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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Acts 6:2-6

The solution proposed by the apostles is surprising on several levels. Firstly, they gather the “full number of disciples” - everyone was called to this meeting of several thousand believers to address this one issue.

Secondly, the apostles ask the congregation for their help in choosing “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. The task of identifying and appointing these stewards was entrusted to the congregation. Why? Well, the apostles didn’t know everyone in the church. Here was a church of thousands pastored by twelve apostles.

Thirdly, their proposal pleased “the whole gathering.” The expression could be translated “the all of everyone.” It is saying that every single member voted “Yes” in this resolution.

Some see this account as the appointment of the first deacons within the church. The word “diakonia” occurs three times in the passage, where we get the English word, “deacon”. In verse 1, it is used to describe the task of distributing food to the widows. In verse 2, it is again used to describe a food-related task, this time, to “serve” tables. But in verse 3, the apostles use the same word to describe their priorities in the “ministry” of the word.

Another way to understand this is to ask: What were these seven men being appointed to do as deacons? The first two occurrences of “diakonia” suggest that they were to be delivery boys or waiters. That is, theirs was a practical task to dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities within the church - feeding the widows, making sure there was enough food, keeping the costs within budget - that sort of thing. Hence, the bible outlines qualifications for the appointment of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, alongside the appointment of elders within the church. The two roles are meant to complement one another. Elders are tasked with leading the church, especially through the teaching of God’s word. In fact, what is striking in the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 is how similar the qualifications are between that of an elder and a deacon - with one exception: the ability to teach. Again, the distinctive role of the elder is their responsibility in leading the church through the ministry of the Word of God.

Having said that, the third occurrence of “diakonia” describes precisely that: the ministry (or “deaconing”) of the word. Acts 6 is a key text many turn to to highlight the main responsibilities of deacons within the church and yet the word never occurs in this passage to describe a person (diakonos = deacon/minister) but rather as a description of a task (diakonia = ministry). In other words, what Acts 6 gives us is a picture of what it means to serve; what it means to do ministry. Whether you are wiping tables, arranging chairs or preaching the Sunday sermon, that’s ministry. There is no less dignity or worth in doing either one of these tasks. Ministers are not defined by their role or title in the church but by their service to the church. The seven men they were appointing that day were servants, yes. Their job was not unlike that of the delivery guy who gets on the bike to deliver the black bean noodles you ordered from Hong Kong Fusion to your doorstep. But they are servants no less than the apostles themselves are servants through their ministry of the word.

Now in a moment, we will see that there ought to be a priority in the way we are to serve. In verse 2, the apostles say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”. But even there, the apostles are recognising their limitations. The apostles couldn’t do this themselves. They needed help. They needed more ministers to help them serve the church well. Through the congregation puts forward the list of names, it is the apostles who “appoint” these seven men to the task in verse 3, that is, the apostles are publicly entrusting their authority to these deacons. The seven deacons are as much a help to the church as they are to the apostles in the ministry/service they are entrusted with.

Notice how all seven men have Greek names, strongly implying that they are all Greek-speaking Jews. Bearing in mind how the Greek-speaking believers were the ones who lodged the complaint against the local Hebrews, it is remarkable how the whole congregation - made up of majority Hebrews and minority Hellenists - chose to elect these seven Greek-speaking Christians as their first council of deacons. That would have been like the Chinese Church electing members of the English Congregation exclusively to its next Council - only BBCs! Or the entire CICCU voting in a whole team of internationals to head up its Executive Committee! Can you imagine that every happening today?

To understand why they did this, we need to remember the nature of the problem. It wasn’t the food. The problem was rather that of neglect. The widows were being “neglected” in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). What we see here is the church addressing the problem not simply by proposing a solution (ie. “Make sure we feed the widows. Let’s come up with a system to make sure all the widows get their food delivered on time.”) but by entrusting the problem to trustworthy men.

Hence, the selection criteria: “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) The most important qualification for these men was not their ability to cook the food, to deliver the food nor manage the distribution of the food, as useful and essential as these skills would have been to carry out their jobs. No, the key qualification they were looking for was faithfulness, trustworthiness and godliness (even though their job would have mainly involved handling the food). Similarly, when we choose members for our music team, the key qualification might not be musical skill (as important as that might be); when we choose our bible study leaders, the key qualification might not be their ability to read Greek and Hebrew. In any ministry, the key criteria are faithfulness, trustworthiness and godliness.

Why did they choose seven Greeks? They would be entrusted with distributing the food to both the Greek and Hebrew widows, of course, but I think it would have been especially encouraging the Greek widows who had been neglected in past, to know that they were being represented in the leadership. It is one thing for Singaporean students to frequent a local church and sit with their friends and mix the church family over coffee after service; but something happens when they see one of their Singaporean friends go up on stage to do the bible reading (in a thick Singaporean accent) or play in the music group or perhaps even deliver the sermon that morning. When they see that, something clicks and a voice at the back of their head says, “Maybe I don’t have to be a spectator in this local church. Maybe my Singaporean-ness doesn’t disqualify me from serving God and serving my fellow brothers and sisters in this local church.”

This was a surprising solution. There was 100% consensus. They did not choose the usual suspects. But most of all, it is a surprising because the church didn’t propose a fantastic programme, they proposed faithful people as the solution.

3. A surprising result

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.
Acts 6:7

Verse 7 does not say, “And all the widows were fed.” That is what we would have expected it to say: Problem solved!

Rather, the account ends with the church growing; with more people hearing the gospel and being saved. In addition to this, “a great many priests” became Christians. Up till now, the priests were the main opponents to the church. The chief priests and Sanhedrin were frequently jealous of the church and its growth. They kept arresting the apostles and threatening them for preaching about Jesus. Yet here, the very opponents of the gospel become its converts.

In other words, God blesses the church even more abundantly and unexpectedly because of the manner in which they handled this seemingly minor problem. Why? In part, it must have been the witness of their love and care for the widows. In part, it must have been the unity the church displayed in tackling this potentially divisive issue.

Yet notice how it isn’t simply that the church grows but that the gospel also grows with the church: “The word of God continued to increase.” I think God is blessing the church in a specific way in response to what the apostles said back in verse 2, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The apostles saw that there was a priority in their responsibilities; a peculiarity in their service: They were to put the word of God first. In this sense, the election of the seven deacons was not simply to ensure that the ministry of food distribution would be carried out in the most effective manner, it was so that ministry of preaching and teaching the word of God could be carried out without hindrance. The apostles were rightly to focus their attention on the word of God.

And the surprising thing is: God blesses that move, almost as a sign of affirmation. The word of God increases and the number of “disciples” multiplies. Acts 6 is actually the first time it refers to Christians a disciples in the book. The word literally means “students”, again emphasising that focus on the word of God as the source of the Christian’s instruction and life. Here in Cambridge, we think of student ministry as something peculiar to this city. We have lots of in-depth studies from the bible, evangelistic talks from the bible and expository preaching from the bible - because Cambridge students need to be challenged in their minds with the bible. Well, Acts 6 tells us that all Christian ministry is essentially student ministry: Christians must be continually shaped by the word of God. The bible must always be at the centre of our identity and activity as the church.

As we have seen the nature of the problem was neglect: Neglect of the widows. Neglect of the helpless and the weak. It is wonderful how the entire church recognises the problem and addresses it head on in a practical and loving manner. But the apostles’ statement teaches us to be mindful of neglecting a greater responsibility: the ministry of the word of God.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the following two chapters in Acts record the ministry of Stephen and Philip - the first two names listed in the team of servants - not distributing food as they were appointed to do, but rather, preaching the word of God to the Jews, the Samaritans and the first of the Gentiles. The truth is, we don’t know if Stephen and Philip ever got a chance to do the ministry they were appointed to because soon after, Stephen gets killed, widespread persecution breaks out against the church and all the believers are expelled from Jerusalem (including, presumably, the widows). Instead, what we see clearly from Acts 7 and 8 are these two young men taking up the call to preach the word of God boldly and faithfully, just like the apostles, even when it cost one of them his life.

Against the backdrop of a practical need, the bible highlights a greater priority: faithfulness to God’s word and focus on God’s mission. The temptation for us today is to neglect this priority in favour of our practical needs. We justify our neglect with our urgent needs. The reason is: We don’t believe God will come through for us. We think we will lose out if we don’t focus first on our needs.

And what this passage reminds us is: God is no one’s debtor. He blesses his church. He multiplies his word. More and more people come to know Jesus and more and more people become recipients of his salvation. Both the physical hunger of the widows as well as the spiritual hunger of his people are satisfied.

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