We have seen how the church has been rapidly growing from a small group of about 120 who were praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:15), to a group that likely numbers somewhere in the tens of thousands (2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1).
However, all of this growth has occurred within Jerusalem. Some people from the surrounding cities have entered into Jerusalem to seek healing from the apostles, but it isn’t until this next section that the Word of God spreads beyond. And we will see that it is because the disciples are scattered (8:1).
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
The growth of the church is a good thing, but it did bring new problems along with it. Satan has failed to squelch the growth of the church through persecution and moral corruption. Now he attempts a third approach, namely division.
Last week, I noted how 5:17-42 was framed by the subject of failed persecution. This week, we see another subject that opens and closes 6:1-7, namely the multiplication of the number of the disciples. This is the first time Luke uses the word “disciple” in Acts, but he will go on to use it twenty-seven more times.
The selection of these seven men will prove to be instrumental in the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, which means the increasing number of disciples will be effective in fulfilling Jesus’ commission in 1:8.
Guy Waters points out:
“The repetition of this term in 6:7 to conclude this section indicates the importance of this scene to our understanding of the nature of Christian discipleship. Discipleship, Luke shows us, entails submission to the apostolic Word, and particularly to that Word as it orders the life of the church.”1
Big Idea: As the church grows, so does its need for leadership and structure.
First, we will look at The Complaint (1). Second, we’ll see The Solution (2-4). Third, we will note The Selection (5-6). And finally, we will consider The Result (7).
The Complaint (1)
Despite the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira and the persecution of the Sanhedrin, chapter six begins with a reference to the increasing number of disciples. This also sets up the problem.
The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who most likely migrated back to Palestine from the diaspora (an estimated 10-20% of the population). The Hebrews were Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking natives of Palestine. The complaint originated from the Hellenists who saw a problem with the lack of relief distribution for their widows.
What is the “distribution”? We have seen this word a few times already. The community held things in common, some sold their possessions and had the apostles distribute the proceeds (2:44-47; 4:32-37). The distribution appears to include things needed for survival (i.e., food, clothing, and money).
The murmurings of the Hellenists are similar to the murmurings of the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness. The word is the same in the Greek Old Testament (LXX or Septuagint). Therefore it most likely has negative connotations regarding the attitude of the complainers. Maybe they were making unfounded accusations against the apostles as to why the distribution seemed unfair. Or maybe they were filled with duplicitous motives. We do not know exactly how they complained or what they said, but it isn’t hard to imagine a sinful influence at work underneath it all.
I see two primary tensions within the community that are acknowledged in this complaint. There was ethnic and administrative tension.
Hellenists would have returned to Jerusalem retaining much of the cultural influence they had while living in another context. I think the ethnic tension was somewhat akin to the way native cultures often treat immigrants. The cultural differences are so vast that favoritism is shown to those we relate to. And there was likely a subtle racism behind the mistreatment of those who were different. This was something the apostles had to work through as well. Paul rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14).
But there was also an administrative tension. The apostles were not distributing in a consistent manner.
Similar tensions are most likely present in our church. How are we addressing them?
These tensions are common enough, but are they dealt with in a godly manner?
The Solution (2-4)
The “full number of the disciples” constitutes a congregational meeting. And what is their responsibility? They are tasked with choosing seven qualified candidates for the work.
How does the apostles’ solution complement what Jesus said, “I came not to be served, but to serve…”? Are the apostles elevating their role? Are they suggesting that serving tables is beneath their calling? Of course not. They demanded the candidates meet high qualifications (1. Good repute, 2. Full of the Spirit and 3. Full of wisdom). It was a matter of calling, not preference.
Notice that the apostles do not challenge the complaint. They don’t even establish a council to look into the matter. Apparently, the complaint was valid and the evidence was plain for all to see.
Nor do they minimize the role of the “distribution”, in fact they saw it as something that required more attention than it was currently receiving. This was a significant shift in the mindset of the apostles. Throughout the Gospels we see the apostles looking upon the afflicted with little sympathy. They simply saw their needs as a distraction from real ministry. Here, however, they recognize the need of the widows, and call a congregational meeting to ensure that the church shows proper compassion.
But they did recognize the apostolic calling to be one primarily focused on praying and preaching.
Just like we see here in Acts, the Presbyterian Church calls upon the congregation to elect her officers. The PCA has two offices: Elders and Deacons. The office of elder is one of “rule” and authority. The office of Deacon is one of service. They tend to handle issues of mercy and thus they are responsible for the distribution of the benevolence fund, based upon this passage.
Although, modern pastors are not apostles, there is a parallel between the primary calling of the apostles to pray and preach, and the primary calling of teaching elders. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he emphasizes prayer (1 Tim. 2), and in his second letter he emphasizes preaching (2 Tim. 4:2).
If prayer and preaching are to remain the primary tasks of the pastor, then the necessary tasks of administration and mercy must be handled by others. Our vision is to transform the people of Clovis by finding, equipping, and multiplying followers of Jesus Christ for the glory of God. Have you considered how you might participate in that vision? It might involve taking care of the needs present?
The solution involves the selection of qualified servants.
The Selection (5-6)
The whole church was in agreement that the best use of the apostles time was praying and preaching.
The process of praying and laying hands on these men is typical of commissioning one who already has the Spirit (cf. Joshua, Num. 27:18, 23). They did not receive the Spirit because of the laying on of hands. The laying on of hands was symbolic of the authority the person was receiving for his new role.
These men are now filling an official role in the church. Although the language of “deacon” is not found in this passage, the components of the office fit the circumstances described. There is also a close connection between “diakonein” (to serve) and “diakonos” (servant). Both words have the same Greek root.
Each of the men have Greek names, which probably indicates an intentional selection of leaders from the portion of the church that raised the complaint.
Stephen and Philip appear to have an enlarged role later on. Stephen will show his ability to preach the word in the next chapter and Philip is referred to as an evangelist (21:8). Either Philip laid aside one office to take up another, or this original group of seven were not identical to the deacons Paul defines in 1 Timothy 3.
Notice the importance of spiritual qualifications (1 Tim. 3:8-12). They were not merely to be good businessmen, but godly stewards. Notice also, the selection was not singular, but plural.
The process of caring for needy widows was also a bit complicated (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3-16).
- Family role
- Church member
Daily care provided. May give justification for not simply giving someone a month’s rent. They appear to be given enough to survive the day. Or, a certain number of those in need came each day. Either way, the assessment of the need was regularly done.
We cannot say the responsibility of the office defines all a person does. Certainly, the apostles still served and the deacons still witnessed. But it is helpful to have distinct responsibilities assigned in order to keep order.
I want to point out two realities that suffer when a pastor is expected to do everything. [And let me make it clear that I am not complaining about our church. These are just general implications of the text.] First, the preaching will suffer because he lacks the time needed for prayerful study. Second, people within the church are prevented from using their own gifts to serve the church.
One very specific way you can serve the church is in helping with the evaluation and planning of the various things we do at Grace Clovis. Joining one of the committees will be a tremendous help.
With the seven servants in place, the church continued to grow.
The Result (7)
“And the word of God continued to increase.” Because the apostles did not neglect the preaching of the word of God—it increased.
“And the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” Adding leadership and structure to the church for equipping and edification does not inhibit evangelism as some people have suggested, but it servers to encourage and support it.
“And a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” This isn’t suggesting that the Sanhedrin was beginning to convert, but the more common class of priests (estimated to be as many as 18,000: 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites) were seeing in this community a love for others they know was lacking from their own community.
Exodus 1:7 says something similar about the people of Israel living in Egypt. They were “fruitful and increased greatly.” I. Howard Marshall points out,
Thus there is some parallel between the growth of the people of God at the time of the exodus and the growth of the number of disciples at the time of the new exodus; the new factor in the latter case is the powerful effects of the preaching.2
If our desire is to see the word of God and the number of disciples increasing—and it should be—then we must find ways to guard the pastor’s time to focus on praying and preaching. It means I personally need to keep this text in mind whenever I think about adding another event of some kind to our calendar.
When Roger Nicole preached on this passage, he pointed out the ten things the apostles did not do in addressing the problem.3 Let me just consider a few:
- They didn’t segment themselves based upon the spoken language or cultural differences. It would have been easy to have First Apostolic Church of Jerusalem filled with the Hebrews and Second Apostolic Church of Jerusalem filled with Hellenists. But the apostles were committed to maintaining the unity of the body of Christ. Sundays remain one of the most segregated times in America. This passage serves as an indictment upon that fact.
- They didn’t sweep the problem under a rug and hope it went away. Dismissing those who were complaining was not an option. They took the situation seriously and dealt with it in a way that is instructive for us all.
They upheld the primacy of their own calling as ministers of the word and invited others to take up a new calling that involved serving widows. Both the apostolic role and the role of deacons was affirmed. Their problems were addressed and solved in house.
Jesus Christ is not only the subject of our proclamation and the source of the apostolic authority, but he is also the prime example of a servant (Phil. 2:5-11). At the the Lord’s Supper, it is Christ who takes the role of the “distributor” as he dispenses the emblems of his suffering to the members of his covenant of grace.
Submission to Christ entails not only our justification, but also our sanctification in the body of Christ. There is a reciprocating relationship of giving and receiving blessings from the church because of our union with Christ.
1 Guy Waters, Acts, 163.
2 I. Howard Marshall, Acts, in editors Beale, G. K., and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007.
3 Referenced by James Boice, Acts.