Dealing with Our Issues to Advance the Word
Passage: Acts 6:1–6:7
God Equipping Us from Week to Week
Maybe you saw the news about Senator Bernie Sanders questioning Russell Vought. Mr. Vought is a nominee to serve as the deputy director for the Office of Management and Budget. He’s also a very outspoken Christian. About a year ago, Mr. Vought published an article in defense of Wheaton College upholding the conviction that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God. He wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” He cited John 8:19 and Luke 10:16.
At the confirmation hearing, Senator Sanders used this against Mr. Vought, asking, “Are you suggesting that all of those [Muslims] stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?” Mr. Vought stood his ground, trying to explain that all people should be treated as God’s image bearers, but faith in Christ was necessary for salvation. Senator Sanders concluded that “[Mr. Vought’s claim] is hateful. It is Islamophobic. And it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” He then opposed Vought’s nomination at least in part due to his Christian beliefs.
Now, I’m not bringing this up to say that Mr. Vought is qualified for the job—I know nothing about him. I’m also not bringing it up to pick on Senator Sanders, who may be ignorant of the historic claims of Christianity. I’m also not bringing it up to suggest that political conservativism is equivalent to Christianity; it’s definitely not. I’m bringing this up simply as an example of what happens when Christians uphold the offense of Jesus Christ. Vought was ridiculed for confessing salvation in Christ alone.
Quite fitting is that just last Sunday we looked at a situation in Acts 5, where the Jewish authorities get offended by the same message. The political situation is obviously very different. But what’s similar is that upholding the gospel with clarity will offend the world. The world will oppose our message, and God was equipping us for that. He equips us every Sunday for his mission in the world. How will he equip us today?
Well, he’s going to bring things a little closer to home. Last week we looked at challenges facing the church from outside. This week it’s a challenge the church faces from inside. This church has issues, complaints. And we may be surprised. The apostles never counsel the people to split. They never counsel the people to go find another congregation in the city. They face the issues together, they plan, they pray, and they keep preaching the word. Let’s pick it up in Acts 6:1…
1 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. 2 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. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 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. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 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.
The main idea of our passage is that whatever issues challenge us within our church, we deal with them together and in a manner that ministers to those in need and keeps the word of God advancing. Let’s walk through the passage in three parts, and then we’ll look at several ways this passage equips us.
A Two-fold Problem
Part one, the church encounters a two-fold problem. Verse 1 explains part of the problem: “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.”
Concern for widows getting neglected
Part of the problem is that Hellenist widows are getting neglected. Hellenists were those from the Diaspora (cf. Acts 11:19-20). They were Jews who moved in from regions outside Israel, bringing with them Greek language and culture (cf. Acts 2:9-11; 4:36; 6:9). They were immigrants. Some of these Hellenists became Christians along with some of the Hebrews. But apparently their widows don’t receive as much care.
Luke shows us that this is understandable in light of the rapid growth. This as a good problem to have. They have the problem in the first place, because disciples are increasing and because they’re actually caring for widows. The system just needs adjustment. Remember the system from 2:45 and from 4:34-35? The church sells possessions, lays the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, then the apostles distribute the money or the food or whatever to those in need. Well there’s only twelve to handle this immense task. They’re limited. So some widows end up getting neglected in the daily distribution. The complaint goes up; and we’re wondering how the church will handle this.
It’s important that they handle it well, because God has plenty to say about his covenant people caring for widows. Exodus 22:22, “you shall not mistreat any widow.” Every three years, Israel brought a tithe of their produce, so that the widow could eat and be filled (Deut 14:29; 22:12-13). When they forgot a sheaf in the field, or missed grapes on the vine, they were to leave that behind for the widow (Deut 24:19-21). All of this, of course, was to reflect what God was like. He executes justice for the widow (Deut 10:18); he’s a protector of the widows (Pss 68:5; 146:9) and will bring vengeance against those who oppress the widow (Deut 27:19; Ps 94:6).
One of the reasons God judged Israel during the exile was for not caring well for their widows (Isa 1:23; Jer 5:28; Zech 7:10f; Mal 3:5). One of the reasons Jesus rebukes the Scribes was for devouring widows’ houses, while they walked around in their nice long robes and chose the best seats in the house (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). The question within this biblical narrative is whether the church would prove to be different, whether they’d prove to be the true Israel, or not. Would they care for their widows? Would they reflect the glory of God’s concern for widows?
James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” The church is obligated to care for true widows who are without help. Indeed, the gospel we preach is about a God who cares for the helpless. God came to our aid when we were dead in trespasses and sins. We had no power to change our circumstances. No way to buy our way out of slavery to sin. Spiritually, we were pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. God loved us when we were that helpless. He sent his Son to die for us while we were still ungodly. He reached down while we were alienated and adopted us as one of his own children.
Responding well to a situation like this is huge, because it shows whether the church truly knows God in the gospel. So, that’s part of the problem: some of their widows are getting neglected.
Concern for the word not advancing
But another part of the problem is the concern for the word not advancing. Verse 2, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It’s not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
By saying this, the apostles are not suggesting that they’re above serving tables. They’re simply showing that there’s a real need for the word to keep advancing, and they’re limited in what they can handle. This isn’t a matter of “We won’t do that” but “We can’t do that and that and that as well.” Back in 5:42, this ministry of the word included teaching every day in the temple and from house to house without ceasing. They’re busy, not to mention the distribution they were overseeing and the occasional arrests and beating. Verse 4 will add the time they must set aside for prayer. Neither the word nor prayer should be neglected in their special calling and ministry.
The apostles were unique eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching and his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). It was crucial that God’s word through them kept advancing. This isn’t a ranking of ministries, but a calling of individuals to different ministries—all which recognize the priority of the word. We’ll return to this later. But for now, we’ve seen our two-fold problem: how are they going to keep reflecting the gospel word by caring for these widows, and how are they going to keep advancing the gospel word by freeing up the apostles for praying and preaching?
An Administrative Solution
Part two, the church works out an administrative solution. The apostles come up with a plan and involve the whole church. Verse 2 says, they summon the full number of the disciples. It’s like a members meeting, hey? They’re not just working it out on their own, they work it out together. Notice also that they don’t hide from the problem. They don’t try to cover up the neglect to save their face. They explain the dilemma to the people: “We hear the Hellenists’ widows aren’t getting served all that well, but it’s not right for us to give up preaching to make that happen.” Notice also the apostles’ humility: they’re willing to admit they can’t do it all. They need the church. Everybody is in ministry, not just those who preach.
So they ask the church to work toward a solution in verse 3 involving others: “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.”
Just because they’re serving tables, doesn’t mean that Christian character makes no difference. Sometimes churches work hard to appoint qualified pastors, but they have hardly any qualifications when it comes to other ministries. “Just try to fill the slots, keep the programs running,” without any attention to character. Not good.
The apostles mention three qualifications here. One, they must be men of good repute. The church would have no problem affirming their godly character. Two, they must be full of the Spirit. When you look at their lives, it’s obvious that the Spirit has given them the new birth (John 3:3, 5). You see the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control (Gal 5:22). Three, they must be full of wisdom. They’re able to make good judgments. They can apply God’s word in discerning true needs and how much to help those in need.
The congregation loves the plan. Verse 5, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose [this is all of them, working together] 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.”
Something to note about the men appointed for this ministry is that most of them have Greek names. Stephen, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas—nobody has yet found these names attributed to first-century Jews in Palestine. But they’re fairly common names for those living in the Diaspora. In other words, the Hebrew Christians don’t shy away from appointing Hellenist Christians to lead the church in caring for their widows. That’s humility, when you’re willing to appoint those who are different than you, but because of their background likely see into a situation better than you.
Then there’s also a brother named Philip—that name was found among Jews in Palestine. In fact, one of the Jewish apostles was also named Philip back in 1:13—he’s one of the Twelve. Then lastly there’s Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. Antioch is close to the boarder of modern day Turkey and Syria. Being a proselyte means he was a Gentile that once converted to Judaism. Now he’s a Christian though.
So you have a diverse bunch of brothers that the church appoints to fulfill this ministry. They don’t fear the diversity. They embrace the diversity for the good of the church and the good of these widows. This anticipates the Gentile mission later on in Acts. The church then prays for God’s blessing to be upon them and commissions them.
The Word Increases; Disciples Multiply
What’s the result? Part three: the word increases and disciples multiply. We see this in verse 7, “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.” What’s the point? God blessed the progress of his word. Even the issues within the church did not end up hindering the spread of the gospel. They were dealt with swiftly and with unity, so as not to hinder the word’s advance.
Even some priests get saved. Some of the priests start obeying Jesus. That serves as a great apologetic. If you’re a first-century Jew, and you read that many of your priests have been persuaded by the gospel, then you’re more likely to listen up. You’re more likely to pay attention to the good news. All of us in here should pay attention to the good news. This gospel word about Jesus has continued to increase. The Lord is adding disciples every day throughout the world, as they hear of Jesus dying for their sins and rising from the dead. The Bible says it will not stop until Jesus returns: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”—Matthew 24:14.
Several Ways Acts 6 Equips Us
Whatever issues challenge us within our church, we deal with them together and in a manner that ministers to those in need and keeps the word of God advancing. That’s our goal, to keep the word of God advancing. To see sinners from all nations find salvation in Christ alone, and God glorified in their lives.
Ensure that God’s word is regularly taught
How might a passage like this one equip us as a church? First, this passage helps us to ensure that God’s word is regularly taught. We see them regularly teaching God’s word in the temple and from house to house in 5:42. We see the word of God increasing in 6:7. The disciples also stress in 6:2 that “It’s not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” Again, they’re not saying that they’re superior to caring for the widows, but that teaching God’s word can’t be hindered.
We don’t want our complaining to get in the way of God’s word advancing. When issues come up, we have to work hard to ensure that the ministry of the word isn’t going to get neglected. Churches can get so caught up in their issues—it doesn’t matter if it’s the color of the carpet, or ministering to the needy and how, or who’s got nursery this week—that the word of God stops going out.
Or, church members can expect the pastors and staff to do everything, so that those called to teach can’t hardly do it very regularly; and if they do, the quality of teaching suffers or the pastors burn out. Or, micro-managing church leaders aren’t willing to admit that they can’t do everything, and so they end up neglecting their responsibility to pray and preach regularly. Whatever the case, we cannot hinder the word’s advance in the church and in the world.
God’s word is what saves us. God’s word is what turns us from our idols to serve the living and true God. God’s word is what sustains us and preserves us as a church. Without the word of God saving us and leading us, we’re lost. Without the word of God, we have no objective truth on which to build our lives. Without the word of God, we have nothing to offer the world in terms of salvation. Ensure that it’s taught regularly.
God calls all Christians to ministry and gifts each for different ministries
Part of ensuring that the word is regularly taught is recognizing that God calls all Christians to ministry and gifts each for different ministries. We should note that preaching the word and serving the widows are both called ministry, service. Verse 1, “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution [or ministry].” Then verse 4, “we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Ministry isn’t limited to those who preach and teach. Rather, it extends to the role every Christian now has in the church. You’re all “in the ministry,” so to speak.
Within the ministry, though, God gifts each of us for different ministries, different roles, different activities. If God gifts some to lead his people through preaching and teaching, then the church does what it can to free those brothers up to fulfill that role well. In our context, that’s the elders. Elders aren’t apostles, like we see here. But we have been charged to teach the apostles’ words on a regular basis.
Elders cannot do everything in the church. There are sometimes things that I’d like to do, or that I’d like to oversee, or that I’d like to fix with my hands, or that I’d like to spend the time thinking about, but many times I have to tell myself “No,” trust that God has raised up other people to do that, and then give myself to prayer and preaching. Or, if there’s no one in place to do it, it’s time to start training and delegating.
If we tried to do everything ourselves, not only would the word of God be hindered, but we wouldn’t learn to be the church. All of you are uniquely gifted to make the church function like it’s supposed to in advancing the word and care. I can tell you right now that I’m amazed by our church. Do we have things to grow in and that we could do better? Absolutely. But I don’t know how many times I find myself so thankful for the way many of you serve this body—our deacons, our care group leaders, our women’s ministry team, our DIG workers, others caring for the grounds, others quietly serving in the background with no recognition. In so many ways, you free us elders up to minister the word of God regularly. Thank you. It’s a joy to serve here.
Widows & care for widows are important to the church’s mission
Something else is this: widows and care for widows are important to the church’s mission. At no point do the apostles suggest that the church should decrease their care for the widows. Rather, they appoint some of the godliest men to make sure they will be cared for. The rest of the New Testament then affirms the same care.
First Timothy 5 is probably the most helpful passage on widows. Paul basically lays out a plan for the church. There was even a roster for which widows would be supported by the church (1 Tim 5:9). Paul is very clear about who should be on the roster and who shouldn’t be. He doesn’t want the church to be overly burdened (1 Tim 5:16), but to care for those who are truly widows (1 Tim 5:3, 16).
So for instance he’s not talking about widows who defy God and use their status to manipulate other people. These are not self-indulgent busy-bodies, who get drawn away by their passions (1 Tim 5:6, 11). These are godly, older women—not less than sixty years old, he says (1 Tim 5:9)—who pray (1 Tim 5:5), have a reputation for good works (1 Tim 5:10), and who are alone without family to support them (1 Tim 5:4, 16). They have no means of income, no life insurance policy, and so forth.
Part of the church’s mission is to know the needs of widows like these and devote themselves to meeting their needs. We don’t have an organized ministry like this yet—partly because many of us are younger—but we might one day. If such needs already exist, then we want to know about them as elders, and we’ll have a little meeting like they did to work out a plan of care for you. By doing so, we reflect God’s character as it’s revealed in the gospel. He comes to rescue the helpless.
It also displays the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, where the poor and needy are lifted up and find a significant role in that kingdom. Thinking about widows in particular, Paul says the ones he has in mind have brought up children, they’ve shown hospitality, they’ve washed the feet of the saints, they’ve cared for the afflicted, and they’ve devoted themselves to every good work (1 Tim 5:10). They continue in supplications and prayers day and night (1 Tim 5:5). Widows are the prayer warriors of the church. Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 7:8, that he’d prefer some of the widows to remain single as he was, because singleness has great benefits for gospel work (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35, 40). Widows play a crucial role in hospitality, prayer, and care for the afflicted.
Let’s work through complaints together & for the gospel’s sake
Finally, let’s work through complaints together and for the gospel’s sake. There have been times in the past when I’ve received an email with a complaint well after a family decided to leave our church. On other occasions I’ve heard a complaint, but the individual didn’t want to meet or stick around to work toward a solution. I know other pastors from sister churches in Fort Worth, and the same happens to them. It’s too messy. I don’t know if it’s just an American consumeristic thing or not, but people find it easier to just leave or ignore things when they have complaints.
That’s not how we see the early church dealing with their issues. When issues come up, they deal with them together. Now, I understand that some leaders aren’t willing to deal with the issues, much less bring them before the church. That’s a whole different sermon. But when the leaders are willing to work toward a solution with the body, let me encourage you—and you need to encourage your other Christian friends in the area—to stay in your church and work through issues together.
I also find great encouragement from this passage at other levels than just caring for widows in need. We live in a day when—for complex reasons, some well-founded and some only perceived—relationships between white brothers and sisters in the church and black brothers and sisters in the church have experienced tension. Some are looking at the same news reports, the same President, and walking away with entirely different narratives and solutions that creates tension.
Sometimes the tension exists because of a lack of charity, a lack of believing the best about others. Sometimes it exists because of a lack of empathy, a refusal to even put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and truly listen. In a time like this, I’m encouraged to read a passage that shows the church working through its issues—part of which involved linguistic and cultural barriers.
We could extend it even further to include issues that rise between singles and families; or between those without kids and those with kids; or between older generations and younger generations; or between minorities and the majority. All kinds of issues crop up when people come together. The point of the church, though, is to show the world what happens when the risen Jesus rules us and not our own passions, preferences, and prejudices. The church here labors so that no member goes neglected. This church doesn’t hide its issues but works through them together. This church appoints a diverse group of men to help shore up the care. This church strives to ensure the word keeps advancing.
God gives grace for this. He gives grace to work through our issues with patience. He gives grace to humble both sides, so that we listen and learn. He gives grace to create a plan of care. He gives grace to raise up new and qualified leaders. He gives grace to keep spreading the gospel together. Let’s keep working through complaints together, and for the gospel’s sake. Let’s not allow the complaints to become reasons to break fellowship, but reasons to build fellowship that then serves the gospel’s advance. Whatever issues challenge us within our church, we deal with them together and in a manner that ministers to those in need and keeps the word of God advancing.