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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
November 20, 2005
In our study of Acts 5 a couple of weeks ago we saw the first internal threat to the early church in the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied even to the Holy Spirit in their effort to gain prestige within the church under false pretenses. God judged their sin very quickly and the church was purified as all who heard of their deaths became fearful. Sin is serious.
Last week we saw the increasing external threat to the early church in the escalation of persecution against the apostles. They responded by rejoicing that they had suffered for the name of Jesus Christ and then continued to teach daily in both the temple and from house to house. Persecution did not keep them from fulfilling Jesus’ command to them to be His witnesses.
This week we will see the second internal threat to the early church. This time it is due to factions developing because the sheer logistics of trying to get everything done made it difficult to do all things equitably, and those who were being neglected began complaining against the rest. Acts 6:1-7 tells us not only about this problem, but also the solution and its results. Please follow as I read.
6:1 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.] 2 And 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. 3 “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And 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 Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. 7 And 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.
Problems in a Growing Church – (vs. 1-2)
Our text starts with the observation that the complaint arose while the disciples were multiplying. Persecution had not slowed the church’s growth, but that rapid growth caused its own problems. Remember that at this time the needs of those in the church were being met by those with the means selling property and extra houses and then giving the money to the apostles for distribution to those in need. By Acts 6, the apostles can no longer keep up with it all and strife in the church begins as people start to grumble against one another.
Our text specifically states that a complaint arose by the Hellenistic against the Hebrews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving. The term for serving here is diakonia / diakonia which primarily means “waiting at table,” and in the wider sense, “provision for bodily sustenance” (TDNT Vol. II, pg. 87) It could be actual food or the finances necessary for food, clothing and shelter. That is the sense it is used here in Acts 6. (The word is also used as a general term for any “discharge of service” out of love). Many Jewish families had remained in the lands they had been deported in either the Assyrian or Babylonian captivity. “Hellenist” was used to refer to these Jews of the Diaspora because their native language was Greek and they often had absorbed some of the cultures from those lands. Some of these Jews had immigrated back to Jerusalem. These “Hellenistic” widows were being neglected in comparison to the “Hebrews,” which refers to the Jews who grew up in Judea speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew.
There was some contention between native and non-native Jews to begin with. The non-natives were often looked down upon by the natives. It would seem unlikely that this tension did not also become part of the complaining. However, I think we can all easily understand how this neglect would have naturally happened. Those people you know will always get more attention than those people you do not know even from the simple fact that you are more aware of their needs. If you add in an overwhelming number of people to be helped, then the simple logistics of the situation will mean that some people will end up being neglected. The ones most likely to be neglected will be those you do not know. That is the situation that developed in the early church. The apostles simply could not themselves handle the distribution to the many that were in need.
Note as well here that those specifically mentioned are the widows, for they are the ones without other resources to meet their needs. That may not make sense to modern Americans where single women can do just about whatever they want, but in that society the women were very dependent upon the men for their livelihood. If your husband died and you did not have children who could take care of you, there was very little job opportunity available to you, and most of that would be very menial. If you were old, then you might not be able to even physically do that work. You would become dependent upon the charity of others. Such was the case with these widows. Later on in 1 Timothy 5, Paul will give specific instructions to the church regarding charity to widows and that its obligation is only to take care of “widows indeed”which are then described as godly and faithful women who do not have family to care for them. Families have the first obligation for their care.
This problem of distribution was further complicated by the fact that it was not the first priority of the apostles. Their first priority, as stated in verse 2, was the word of God and its proclamation. So the twelve, the common title for the apostles, called the congregation of the disciples, the common term for believers / Christians, and told them the problem and gave them a solution.
Solutions for a Growing Church (vs. 3-6)
Finding Qualified Servants
In verse 3 they put the responsibility upon the congregation to find men that would meet the necessary qualifications who they could then appoint to be over this particular ministry. Please note that while the Apostles gave the congregation the responsibility to find the men, they reserved for themselves the actual appointment of the men to the ministry. That is a principle we seek to follow at Grace Bible Church by allowing any member of the congregation to nominate another member for any of the church offices, but they must then be approved by the current church leaders before they can be appointed to that office. As an additional protection for ourselves, we also ask for a final congregational affirmation of the appointment to make sure that if anyone is aware of anything that might disqualify the person for office it can be made known before the actual appointment is made.
Seven men were to be appointed. The number, “seven,” only indicates to us that the ministry at hand was sizable enough to require seven men to take care of it. While “seven” may be used in some Bible passages with a connotation of “fullness” or “completeness,” it is also simply a factual number. Those who take this passage to mean that the number of church officers has to be seven have stepped over the line into unjustified mysticism that distorts the text. Not only are the men here not church “officers” but simply men who are appointed to carry out a ministry, but those New Testament texts that do deal with offices in the church do not give any set number of such officers for the church. People are appointed to serve according to need and qualifications.
The particular qualifications given for the seven that would carry out this ministry of distributing food to the needy widows is that they would be men are of good reputation and full of the Spirit and wisdom. It is inherently reasonable that such men be of “good reputation,” which refers to men who are known and spoken well of. These are men of high integrity and honesty. You would want that in anyone who is dealing with the finances of an organization. In addition, because there is a personal aspect of this ministry to make sure it was carried out fairly, they would need to be men full of the Spirit and wisdom. They have to be godly men who follow the Lord and have the wisdom to apply and carry out God’s will in whatever situations they encounter. This kind of ministry would require the sensitivity to others that only the Holy Spirit could give. They would have to have the compassion to meet the needs while at the same time the discernment to weed out those demands made upon them that were not actual needs. They would also have to have the wisdom to properly divide up what was available for distribution while trusting God to provide for the needs as they arose.
We use this same list of qualifications here at GBC for our church treasurer as well as being “free from the love of money.” We want the person that handles the church finances to not only be someone with high integrity, but wisdom to handle it correctly and the personal walk with God to trust Him to provide in the midst of the wildly fluctuating giving common to most churches. Our treasurer can tell you that the giving here can be at about budget one week, crash the next and then skyrocket the third. It is a job only for those that have a strong faith in the Lord and His promises otherwise your in for a wild emotional roller-coaster ride.
The final thing to note in verse 3 is that the Apostles were going to put these seven men over this need, or as the NASB puts it, “in charge of this task.” That means they would not necessarily be doing the physical aspects of the distribution themselves, but could just be making sure that all the widows were properly cared for while others helped with the physical tasks involved. That is still an important leadership principle to follow today. Just because you are appointed over some task that does not mean that you have to do all the work yourself. It simply means that you have been given the responsibility to make sure the task is done, and done properly. While generally not true here at GBC, there are times that we find people that think and act like the church leaders are supposed to personally do all the ministry. They are not. I will give an overview of church structure and ministry in a few minutes.
The twelve go on in verse 4 to make it clear what their God given priority was to be. They would devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. They use the same word here, diakonia / diakonia, that they had used in verse 2 except that they modify it with the addition that they would serving the word. The seven men that were going to be chosen would devote themselves to serve the task of taking care of the distribution to the widows while they would devote themselves to prayer and to serve the task of the distribution of the word. This is certainly not from the idea that the Apostles thought themselves too good for meeting people’s physical needs, but as verse 2 already described, they could not do that to the neglect of the word of God. Jesus had already given them the priority of ministry they were to keep.
That is another good principle for us to keep in mind today. God has equipped every believer to serve Him with different gifts, ministries and effectiveness in those ministries. Whatever gifts or ministries we have does not mean that we cannot or should not do other ministries, but at the same time we also have to be careful of becoming side tracked so that we fail to keep the priorities God has given us. My personal relationship with God is first, then my ministry to my wife, then to my kids, then use of my primary gifts to other believers and non-believers and then responding as best as I can outside my areas of giftedness to the needs that are around me. The problem is that the tyranny of the urgent, i.e. responding to current and pressing needs, can easily distract us from the priorities God has already commanded us to keep. We all need to be careful.
Verse 5 tells us that the congregation approved of the Apostles plan and they choose seven men. Luke specifically points out that Stephen was a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” because Stephen will be the key figure from Acts 6:8 – 7:60 as the first martyr of the church. Of the other men, only Philip is mentioned again since he is the one that first takes the gospel to Samaria in Acts 8. He is mentioned again in Acts 21 as “Philip the evangelist, one of the seven.” These men proved not only to be faithful to the task given to them, but they were also faithful in serving the Lord in many other ways.
It is interesting to note that all the names of these men are Greek. Some have said that shows these were all Hellenistic Jews. If that is true, it would certainly have been a gracious way to satisfy those who were complaining, however, it was not uncommon for Judean Jews to have Greek names, such as the Apostle Philip. The one that is definitely Hellenistic is Nicolas who was a proselyte from Antioch, so there certainly was to some degree choosing of those that would be more sensitive to make sure the Hellenistic widows were cared for.
In verse 6 these men are brought to the Apostles who pray and lay their hands on them. Our term “ordination” means to “lay hand on.” This is the method by which men are marked as approved for ministry. We will see this same thing occur again in Acts 13 when the church in Antioch sets apart Paul and Barnabas for the first missionary journey by laying hands on them.
Activities of a Growing Church (vs. 7)
As the seven carried out the duties of their ministry the church, the reasons for the complaints were solved and the contention ended. They church once again was able to give proper focus to the priorities of its commission to proclaim Jesus, which is what we find in verse 7.
“And 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.”
The gospel kept spreading resulting in more and more people in Jerusalem were becoming disciples of Christ. The term “disciple” is the most common term to describe the early Christians (disciple is used 28 times in Acts. Christian is used 2 times in Acts and once in 1 Peter. Believers is used 3 times in Acts and 7 times in the epistles). It simply means a “follower” and would also be used to refer to a student or pupil of a teacher. The early Christians recognized themselves as first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ.
Luke also points out here in verse 7 that included among these new disciples were a great many priests who were becoming obedient to their new faith in Jesus. This did not include the High Priest or those who were Sadducees, but many of the common priests were becoming Christians. In the flow of Luke’s historical account, this is probably one of the key reasons for the strong reaction against Stephen by those still holding to traditional Judaism. If even the priests were being converted in large numbers, then their whole religious system was under serious threat. More on that next week.
Structure for the Church Today
Acts 6:1-7 shows the importance of having structure in the church, for without it, important ministries will be neglected, and that allows a basis for complaining, dissension and eventually division. Without going into all the detail, I want to give you an overview of what the Bible says about church structure and its importance.
To begin with, we need to understand that we live in a time and a society that seems to be increasingly antagonistic to not only authority, but also structure. There are several reasons for this including a fear of commitment, but more foundational is a stress on individual independence and autonomy. People want to do want they want when they want without anyone saying otherwise. Tragically, this is also the way that people approach the Church. They go from church to church looking for which one will cater the most to their needs while asking the least commitment on their part. (Pastors sometime refer to them as church shoppers and hoppers). But that is contrary to the very nature of the church as we have already seen here in our study of the early church in Acts. They had a commitment to one another that resulted in sacrificial giving to meet the needs of each other. Their commitment to submit to and serve God resulted in a corresponding commitment and service to one another. Life was no longer about them. It was about God and His working through them. That is why the disciples who ran away at Jesus’ arrest became the Apostles who rejoiced though flogged and they continued to boldly and publically teach and preach Jesus as the risen Christ despite the threats made against them. Being obedient to and serving Jesus was more precious to them than their own lives.
Here in Acts 6 we see the beginnings of the structural development of the church. The apostles are the clear leaders and authority in the church. As ministry expanded and assistants were needed to help carry out the various ministries of the church, with the help of the congregation they appointed men over the tasks to be done. Some have called the seven here in Acts 6 the first “Deacons.” That would be true in the sense that they are the first group of men given responsibility over a particular task of serving, but this was not yet the establishment of a permanent office in the church for none of these men are anywhere ever called “deacons.” As one commentator put it, though these men do not hold the office of “Deacon” which is established later, they could be called the proto-deacons in that they establish the precedent that would develop into the office of Deacons.
By Acts 11 the church had developed the office of “Elder” which carried the responsibility for financial oversight of the church. Barnabas and Saul (Paul) bring a gift from the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem for relief of the poor. Acts 11:30 says that they sent that gift to the elders. In the first missionary journey this office was already so important that Acts 14:23 records that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church they had started. In Acts 15 we get an additional insight into the office of elder in that both they and the apostles are called on to handle a doctrinal dispute (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22,23). In Acts 20:17–35 Paul charges the elders from the church in Ephesus with responsibility for guarding the flock which the Holy Spirit has made [them] overseers and to shepherd the church of God. They were responsible for both caring / teaching the people and protecting them from wolves that would come in with false doctrine and try to draw away disciples after themselves. It should be noted that in Acts 21:18 James, who had presided over the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, is referred to as one of the elders. The apostles Peter and John use the term, “elder,” for themselves in 1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1 and 3 John1. In the book of James he writes with the expectation that the Christians who had scattered all over the Roman world had established churches with elders, for those that were sick were to call for the elders of the church (James 5:14). Paul told Titus that he had left him in Crete to set in order what remained and appoint elders in every city.
Other terms which refer to the elder (presbuteroV / presbuteros) include bishop or overseer (episkopoV / episkopos) and pastor (poimhn / poiman). In Acts 20:17 Paul calls the elders to himself and in verse 28 he calls those same men overseers. In 1 Peter 5:1,2 the apostle says that the elders are to feed / pastor the flock. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul says that God gave the offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor & teachers to the church. In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9 Paul tells us that the overseer and elder are to teach. All three terms refer to the same person. His position is an elder. His responsibility is to oversee. His activity is to pastor.
Elders/pastors/overseers are men who have certain character and skill qualifications which are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. These include being above reproach, the husband of one wife (lit. a one woman man – which excludes women from this office), temperate, prudent, respectable (sensible, just, devout & self-controlled), hospitable, able to teach (both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict), not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious (not self-willed or quick-tempered), free from the love of money; one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (they are faithful and not accused of dissipation or rebellion); not a new convert and also having a good reputation with those outside.
Those who currently hold the positions of elders here at Grace Bible Church are myself and Pastor Carrero with 4 other men (John, Ricky, Ed & Jim) working at completing the requirements for elders.
The congregation’s responsibility toward elders include counting those who rule well and labor in word and doctrine worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17) and submission to them because they keep watch over your souls (Heb. 13:17). They are not to be accused except by two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19), and those who continue in sin are to be rebuked in the presence of all.
Another office in the church are Deacons. Paul distinguishes them as such in his greetings in Philippians 1:1 and in his listing their qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Their character qualifications are very similar to those of elders including being dignified, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain. They are to be the husband of one wife (lit. a one woman man) and good managers of [their] children and their own households. They are also to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience and be tested and then allowed to serve if they are beyond reproach.
A third office in the church are Deaconesses. In many churches these are designated as the Deacon’s wives because 1 Timothy 3:11, which lists their qualifications, is somewhat unclear. The literal translation of that verse is “women, likewise, dignified, not malicious gossips, temperate, faithful in all things.” We take this to be deaconesses because 1) this verse occurs in the middle of the deacon qualifications; 2) there is no feminine word for deaconess which is why the neuter form, diakonos, is used for Phebe in Romans 16:1); 3) if it was wives of deacons Paul could have easily designated that; and 4) if it wives of deacons, then why is there no corresponding requirements for the wives of elders?
The duties of Deacons and Deaconesses are much like that of the seven here in Acts 6. They are simply servants that take on ministry tasks as assigned to them by the elders for the benefit of the whole church. Here at Grace Bible Church we have 3 men (Jim, Ed and Ricky) who serve as Deacons with 2 more in training (Randy & Morris) along with 6 women (Diane, Mary, Nancy, Sandy, Melanie, & Karen) who serve as Deaconesses with one more in training (Joan). We are always looking for more men and women that are serious enough about their walk with and serving Christ that they will work at becoming qualified. If you are interested, let any of our current Elders, Deacons or Deaconesses know. There are also handout papers in the literature rack that explain more.
One final point needs to be stressed about structure in the church. Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-28, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and [their] great men exercise authority over them. 26 “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Church leadership is about increasing service, not power. Those who pursue leadership positions for the purpose of power do a disservice to the church, and they will find themselves frustrated because American volunteers do not take well to authoritarian commanders, and they will be fighting against God because He is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.
Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.
Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Count how many times a church leader is mentioned. Talk with your parents about the qualities of a good church leaders and the importance of following them as they follow Christ.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
What was the condition of the church at the beginning of Acts 6. What had they already experienced? How had that affected them? What was the complaint and what was its source? What does the Bible say about complaining? What does the Bible say about the care of widows? What was God’s priority for the apostles? What responsibility did the apostles give the congregation in finding men to help with the task. What responsibility did they reserve for themselves? What is the significance of there being “seven” men? What qualifications did they have to meet? – explain. What specific responsibility would be given to these men? What are God’s general priorities for all Christians? What are your priorities? Why? How well do you keep them? What hinders you from keeping them? What do we know about “the seven?” What do we not know? How did the church respond? How do people now generally respond to structure and authority? Why? How does that affect the church? Trace the development of “elders” in the church. What responsibilities are given to elders? What is the relationship between elders, bishops / overseers and pastors / shepherds? What are the congregational responsibilities toward elders? What qualifications must a man have to be an elder? To be a Deacon? To be a Deaconess? Why does GBC have Deaconesses? What are the general duties of a Deacon or Deaconess? What attitude should all church leaders have? Why? What is your attitude about church leadership?
Sermon Notes – November 20, 2005
Persecution Escalates – Acts 6:1-7
Problems in a Growing Church (vs. 1-2)
Overwhelmed Apostles (vs. 1a)
Complaints Begin (vs 1b)
Loss of Priority (vs. 1c)
Solutions for a Growing Church (vs. 3-6)
Finding Qualified Servants (vs. 3)
Keeping Priorities (vs. 4)
Appointing the Seven Men (vs. 5,6)
Activities of a Growing Church (vs. 7)
Structure for the Church Today
The Modern Problem
Duties and Qualifications
Deacons & Deaconesses
– – – – – — Place Sermon Notes / Think About it Here – – – – –
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