“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. 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. 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 6:1-7 ESV)
It happens to all of us. Everything is going along well and then suddenly things seem to just fall apart. I grew up in an area of Tulsa, Oklahoma where the railroad was a big part of life. I walked along the rails back and forth to school and even played and explored around them after school and on weekends. One day someone knocked on our door and introduced himself as a railroad investigator. There had been a train derailment nearby and I had been identified as having been in the area the previous day and was suspected of tampering with the switch and possibly causing the derailment. Can they put an 11 year old in jail? I’m sure you’ve felt like this before, life has suddenly taken a hard left turn and begun to fall apart.
The early church had been growing and things seemed to be just about perfect. Suddenly, we have a huge issue with Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, and their attempt at misleading the Holy Spirit. Luke says great fear came upon everyone. I would imagine that was like a huge wet towel thrown on the Apostle’s ministry. But, things recovered and the church regained strength and momentum and continued growing. Luke starts this section by noting the growth, “in these days when the disciples were increasing in number.” Then we have another train wreck, the Hebrew widows were being treated better than the Hellenist widows. That’s enough of an issue to throw the entire church into turmoil, and it did.
One quick side note as an explanation… Hebrew and Hellenist Jews are religiously related but ethnically and culturally different. When the Jewish nation was conquered by the Babylonians/Persians/Syrians the people were moved from their homeland and dispersed throughout the people of the conquering nation. While some returned home to Palestine when the opportunity arose, the majority did not. Those who did not return to their homeland retained their religious distinction and practices but adopted the language and culture of their captors. Eventually, Alexander the Great and his Greek armies conquered them all and the Hellenist culture became the dominant culture of the Jewish exiles. Just FYI, they are also known as the “diaspora” which means the dispersed.
So now, we have these Jewish Christians groups with significant cultural differences coming together in the early church. Conflict seems inevitable. I think the modern church and, especially, pastors tend to place the early church on a pedestal. Almost to the point of idolizing it. However, the text tells us that the Hellenist widows complained that they were being mistreated and that the Hebrew widows were receiving more assistance in the daily distribution. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a lot like our modern churches. Certainly not the “perfect” little churches we often expect and mistakenly reference from early Christianity.
Problems are often viewed as barriers or obstacles to our success or goals. There’s an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” That’s just a fancy way of saying, the problems we face are simply challenges that force us to find solutions. I recently watched the movie “The Martian” with Matt Damon for the first time and was fascinated by his ability to develop solutions to the challenges of his survival. When our lives depend on it, we can get pretty resourceful and creative.
The problem with Christians today is we don’t often view “church” as a necessity. If we don’t like what is happening at “our church” then we can just move to one of several dozen others in town. In fact, we often shop for a church much like we shop for a workout gym. We “visit” with a friend or get a “temporary” membership so we can check out all of their features and programs. And if our current church should fail to meet our expectations then we will just pack up and move to that new church down the street. I’ll bet they’ll appreciate my support and satisfy my needs.
But that’s NOT how God intended for things to be. It is this very interaction and struggle within the church that is intended to develop the character of Christ in us. Notice in our text what really happened in the Jerusalem church. They had grown significantly and, in the process, had begun to get more and more members from among the Hellenist Jews. Things were changing rapidly in their little church and it wasn’t so “little” anymore. What had begun as a group of about 120 or so (see Acts 1:15) had exploded to more than 5,000 men (see Acts 4:4) plus women and children.
With growth comes the natural challenges of administration and management and some unnatural challenges through our adversary, Satan. Some of the challenges we see in today’s text are just the natural result of the growth of the group. What used to be fairly easy to plan and organize for a group of 120 is now much more difficult for a group of 5,000 plus. But, notice the introduction of the ethnic and cultural issues in the statement “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.” This is a much deeper problem and one not readily resolved through administrative or management changes. It doesn’t take much for a schism to develop in a group when you start throwing around accusations that involve ethnic or cultural differences.
Satan loves to use these situations to divide God’s people along ethnic and cultural lines (and any other lines we are willing to let him identify). I have no doubt that he was using this situation as an opportunity to try and stop the dramatic growth of the church and the impact the gospel was having in the lives of these Hebrew and Hellenist Jews. In fact, that really becomes the central issue the Apostles recognize and address. They recognized that this issue had the potential of diverting the church’s focus from its main task, proclamation of the Gospel. These issues have the same potential today of diverting our churches focus from the proclamation of the Gospel.
The Apostles recognized that the issue was real and needed to be addressed. Someone in their ranks had the spiritual gift of “administration” (see 1 Cor. 12:28) and suggested that they appoint seven men to oversee this ministry. The Apostles also realized the importance of choosing the right men to oversee this ministry and included the qualifications that they be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” So, it is at this point that two of the most important but often overlooked doctrines of the church are first seen at work in the early church, the Priesthood of the Believer and Soul Competency. Notice that the Apostles don’t choose and appoint these men to oversee this ministry, the church does (choose from among yourselves). The Apostles gave some administrative guidance, but the church chose and appointed them.
The Priesthood of the Believer specifically teaches that every believer has direct and unhindered access to God through Christ without the need for a human “priest” to act as a mediator (see 1 Pet. 2:5,9). Soul Competency teaches that every believer (or soul) is responsible and accountable before God for their own salvation/spiritual condition and are “competent” to relate to God without the need for a priest to act as a mediator. Why is this important and how does it relate to our text? We see the Apostles charging the church with the task of choosing men who have a good reputation and who are full of the Spirit of God and wisdom to oversee and manage this ministry. Common, everyday believers/church members are expected and empowered to seek God’s guidance and contribute to the oversight and ministry of their local church. The Apostles provide leadership and guidance, but the church acts at God’s direction to equip and empower ministry.
Finally, notice the men who are chosen and the purpose for which they were chosen. I’m not sure if the majority of the church members were Hellenist or not, but the men chosen all had Greek names. This seems to suggest that they were all from among the Hellenist group and is a fascinating response to the problem. While I certainly won’t suggest that the majority chose men only from their group, it is possible that through God’s guidance the group chose only Hellenist believers because of their qualifications and sensitivity to the issue. Those who have been the victims of ethnic bias are certainly more aware and sensitive to the issue and less likely to respond to others with similar bias.
These men are selected for an important task and a vital ministry. They were chosen to serve the church by overseeing and administering the daily distribution (serve/diakonein – literally means to kick up dust because of one’s haste to serve). This is the New Testament term and passage whereby we get the English word “deacon” (a transliteration of the Greek term “diakonos” or table servant). Notice that their true purpose was to serve the widows and to free up the Apostles for prayer and ministry of the Word.
Too often, the church has reversed these ministries in their relative importance. We have placed so much emphasis on “ministering” to our members that we often fail to give priority to prayer and ministry of the Word (or proclamation of the gospel). While I agree that ministry to members and non-members is important, it is not the most important aspect or task of the church. The MOST important task of the church must always be the proclamation of the Gospel to a lost world. However, both tasks must work hand-in-hand to proclaim the truth to those desperate to hear it.
The church was facing a crisis as members began to grumble and complain. As the same happens today, many just leave and go find another church. But doing so short-circuits the growth process of faith. God has called us to love one another in a covenant relationship. That means we continue to fulfill our part of the covenant regardless of how we feel they are fulfilling their part of that covenant. Perhaps that’s why we have so many immature and self-centered Christians. We keep walking away from the very problems that God has placed in our path to mature our faith.
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? …For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7, 11 ESV)
I suggest you go read all of Hebrews 11 – 12 and then “run with patient endurance the race set before you.” Don’t short-circuit the growth process God has set before you. Stay in the race, stay in the church, and keep the proclamation of the Gospel a priority even as you minister to those in need.
By the way, I didn’t get arrested for that train derailment. I admitted to the railroad detective that a friend and I had been at that railroad switch looking at how it worked but it was locked with a huge padlock. When I told the railroad detective the truth about what we had been doing and about the lock, I was cautioned to “stay away” from the switches and play elsewhere. While I never messed with another switch, I still walked those rails to school each day and have a love for trains to this very day.