Churches thrive when members do their jobs.
Today is Church Vocations Sunday and Installation Sunday; we are celebrating and supporting those who give leadership to our church. It’s wonderful to see the leaders of the church cooperating with one another to show a congregation the way Jesus wants them to go.
For example, I’m reminded of a church where the trustees took out the old paper towel dispensers and replaced them with modern hot-air hand dryers. For their part, the deacons added signs above each dryer which read, “For a sample of this week’s sermon, push the button.”
CONTEXT: Our passage this morning is the second of two threats to the unity of the First Church. The first, in ch. 5, was hypocrisy. Ananias and Sapphira pretended to sell their home and give all the proceeds to the church. In a demonstration of how much God hates hypocrisy, this lie cost both the husband and wife their lives. As we will see, the second problem was complaining.
We will also note the selection of deacons set up the next two sections of Acts as the spotlight falls on two of the newly-elected deacons, Stephen and Philip (chs. 6-8).
- The problem. (vs. 1-2)
Part of the problem was the rapid growth of the Church = THE NUMBER OF DISCIPLES WAS INCREASING. References to church growth bracket this narrative. A great problem to have, right? The Church added people faster than they added the leadership to take care of them.
How fast? Note 3,000 converts were mentioned in 2:41 and the 5,000 members in 4:4, we know for certain that the Church numbered in the thousands in a city of 100,000 residents. That’s a lot for twelve guys to administrate!
The other part of the problem was complaining = THE GRECIAN JEWS COMPLAINED AGAINST THE HEBRAIC JEWS. At this point the Church existed only in Jerusalem and was made up only of Jews. It was considered to be a sect of Judaism.
At that time, there were two kinds of Jews. Luke referred to one group as GRECIAN JEWS; they were people who converted to Judaism or were born Jews, but came from other parts of the world. HEBRAIC JEWS, on the other hand, were people who were born in the region. The primary difference was the fact they spoke different languages.
The out-of-town Jews believed that their widows were not getting their fair share of the daily soup kitchen. This is not a small thing: Ministry to widows, orphans, aliens, and other down-and-out types was a big focus of the early church. It was where a lot of their money was spent. It is no coincidence that the first complaint in church life involved widows – the Old Testament commanded care for widows (i.e., Deuteronomy 10:18). Jesus taught neglecting the care of widows was evidence of disobeying God (Luke 7:12-14).
The result was that the Apostles’ time was being spent waiting on tables when they should have been ministering the WORD. The same Greek word translated here as DISTRIBUTION OF FOOD appears in 1:17+25 as the MINISTRY the Apostles received from Jesus. This linguistic connection makes two things clear. One, the TWELVE did the work of waiting on tables. Two, waiting tables and proclaiming the Word were both considered ministry. Both were important work.
Why were the Twelve doing all this themselves? Sometimes it’s easier for leaders to do things themselves than it is to recruit people to do them.
What’s more important in this case, is that the Twelve demonstrated wisdom by recognizing taking care of this problem themselves was not a good idea. When it came down to a choice between waiting tables or ministering the WORD, they knew which was part of their calling and which was not.
Again, both these were ministries were important to the church. But the Twelve realized they were called to minister the word, not administrate a social program. It was not RIGHT for them to WAIT ON TABLES because that would have required them neglecting their true ministry. Somebody needed to do it, but it needed to be somebody else. Here is an example of a situation where spirituality and practicality both need to be heard.
- The proposal. (vs. 2-6)
They proposed the congregation choose seven godly men to WAIT TABLES. The Twelve created the proposal but they left it up to the members to decide who would administrate this program.
They proposed a group of SEVEN men because seven is seen as a symbol of completeness; that’s all that was needed. Social scientists tell us seven is just about the ideal number for any working group.
The Twelve set forth the qualification the Seven were to be KNOWN to possess: FULL OF THE SPIRIT AND WISDOM. True wisdom comes from God through the Holy Spirit.
The DISCIPLES (the members, the congregation) chose seven men from among their own number. The fact that they all have Greek names does not prove that all Seven were GRECIAN JEWS, but if they were, that was an extraordinary accommodation by the HEBRAIC JEWS to the GRECIAN JEWS.
Luke describes only two of the Seven in any detail. His mention of Stephen as A MAN FULL OF FAITH AND THE HOLY SPIRIT set up the account of Stephen, the first martyr, starting in verse eight. The other mention is Nicolas, a CONVERT TO JUDAISM. This proves that not all of the church members were born Jews.
Delegating authority was not a new idea: in Exodus 18:13-26; Numbers 11:1-25, and Deuteronomy 1:9-18, we read about 70 Israelite men who were selected to assist Moses in settling disputes among the people and to train them in faithfulness to God.
The phrase WAIT ON TABLES is the Greek word diakonein, from which we derive our word “deacon.” Though Luke does not refer to the Seven as “deacons” in this passage, he will by chapter 21. It’s ironic how the church has turned this word upside down. The original deacons were table waiters; workers in a soup kitchen that delivered daily meals to the needy. Their jobs were practical. In the modern American church, deacons are responsible for spiritual ministry while the practical work is given to “trustees.” Biblically, it ought to be the other way around.
If the proposal were accepted, the Apostles would have more time to pay ATTENTION TO PRAYER AND THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD. PRAYER is a separate ministry. It includes public worship and private visitation. MINISTRY OF THE WORD includes preaching and teaching; discipleship that occurs in public and private situations.
As we stated earlier, this division of labor does not imply any kind of elitism. The Twelve and the Seven had two different kind of work but BOTH were considered ministry. The fact that the Seven were commissioned for ministry by the laying on of hands (v. 6) is further evidence of this variety of callings without a hierarchy of callings.
- The product. (vs. 5+7)
For possibly the last time in recorded history, all the church folk were happy at the same time. The Greek word for PLEASED denotes a kind of satisfaction with the actions of another. Our objective is to aim to please God, not any individual or group in the church. So if everyone’s happy, that’s gravy, not our goal.
Luke listed two signs of God’s approval of the way the problem had been resolved. He wrote, THE WORD OF GOD SPREAD. On a practical level, the Twelve had their time freed up by turning the food ministry over to the Seven. On a spiritual level, God registered His approval by giving them more opportunities to speak the word to those outside the church.
He also wrote THE NUMBER OF DISCIPLES INCREASED. This is the other bracket that frames this passage; the Church was growing in number before the complaint and it continued to grow after they faithfully resolved the complaint.
The text supplies two qualifiers of the growth the First Church experienced. The word RAPIDLY implies the Church’s growth gained speed. A LARGE NUMBER OF PRIESTS were added to the membership. These were men who had a vested interest in the status quo and were trained in the Scriptures. And they overcame all that to choose to follow Jesus!
Churches thrive when members do their jobs.
That’s not important. What is important is the example set for us by the early church. Every believer is given their individual set of spiritual Gifts and other resources they can contribute to the life of their local church. When all the believers make their contributions, the church prospers. We need a variety of contributions and a depth of contributors in order to be faithful to God and the mission He has given us. Church is not a spectator sport. Everyone’s contributions differ slightly, but everyone contributes. With love, we assemble these offerings of various resources and expend them in ministry to our people and the people outside our walls.
Here’s their example for us to follow:
– When a problem is announced, the leaders are responsible to see if it is a problem and take reasonable steps to resolve it.
– The leadership formulates a proposal and presents it to the membership, requiring them to share responsibility for a solution.
– Working together, the leaders and followers enact the solution with prayer and good sense empowering a godly way forward.
– When we are faithful, God makes us fruitful. It may not be immediate, but it is inevitable.
Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Eckhard J. Schnabel