Summary: For the first few chapters of Acts we have heard about the beginnings and growth of the early church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Now we start to see some of the growing pains and the spread of the church over the next several chapters.
Alistair Begg, one of my favourite preachers who spoke daily in Chicago when I was there in May, shared a story from a pastor’s conference he held at his church last year. The theme of the conference was, from our passage today, “we will devote ourselves to the preaching of the word and to prayer”. The conference was called “Basic”. We have gotten so used to novelty in the church that a common response to this theme even from other pastors, was a rather sympathetic gesture inferring, “What, have you run out of good ideas?” Preaching and prayer just don’t seem that innovative and frankly to many, are the boring part of church.
For the first few chapters of Acts we have heard about the beginnings and growth of the early church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. This was done almost exclusively through prayer and preaching. And Satan was working hardest through the religious leaders, not to stop miracles and such, but to stop the preaching about Jesus. Now we start to see some of the growing pains and the spread of the church over the next several chapters.
Now as I’ve said, I’m trying to relate what we read about the early church with the church of today, and as I read this chapter 6, I became aware that the things they had to deal with are very similar to what we have to. As a pastor, I have learned that there are some people who feel neglected in the church, not so much anymore because they don’t have enough food, but they may have other needs (or more often desires) that a single pastor cannot possibly meet for everyone. This is often legitimate, but it also often reflects the common attitude that the church exists for us, rather than us for the church.
This early church is growing very quickly and that can be a threat to people who want lots of personal attention, but notice the apostles didn’t say, “O my goodness we better stop preaching the word, too many are being saved, we’re growing too fast”.
It’s not that the apostles thought the distribution to widows was unimportant, in fact they probably instituted this ministry because they knew Jesus command to take care of them. This is a distinction of function, not value. Feeding people was not less valuable than preaching. In fact the preaching of the word should create ministries in the body that people work toward. John Stott says if you’re a Christian, then you are as much in full time ministry as the pastor. Whether that be in the church, in your family, or at your work.
In this case in Acts we have what boils down to a language barrier, and problems with the organization of the administrative aspects of the church. The truth is even today that most churches are way behind secular organizations in terms of administrative competence.
Now it’s hard enough with a church of a hundred people, but here in Jerusalem we are now looking at a minimum of 5-10 thousand families and I guess you could say 12 pastors. Churches of that size nowadays have paid staffs of upward of 100 people, not to mention all the volunteers.
As we read today, the Hellenist widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of provisions. Remember we read in an earlier chapter that they shared everything they had so no one went without? Well the system is getting overtaxed, and chances are the apostles didn’t even know about it at first.
The Hellenists were the Jews who had been dispersed throughout the centuries and were Greek speaking, the rest of the Jews in Jerusalem would have spoken primarily Aramaic at this time, so this was likely an unintentional oversight from problems in communication and organization, which you can imagine with that many people and two different languages.
Now as far as we can tell from reading, this is the first real administrative act that the apostles had to deal with in the church, and I think it is prescriptive for churches and pastors today as we lead a body of believers.
Let me paraphrase what the apostles say when they become aware of this problem. “Ministry to the people in this church is getting too cumbersome for us and is detracting us from the roles we are called to. It is wrong for us to give up knowing and preaching the word of God to visit and distribute food to all these people. We have to devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word, this is our full time job, so pick out from amoung this priesthood of believers, people who have good reputations, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint to this ministry.”
So that’s what they did because this solution pleased everyone. Now let me point out a couple things here. First of all were these volunteers? Nope, they were chosen and appointed. Were they paid staff? Nope. It appears they were people who were willing to do what the body of believers identified and called them to do simply as members of the church. We don’t hear any of the 7 complaining about being chosen to do this work.