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Chosen to serve

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Introduction

This morning we move into chapter 6 in the book of Acts. But more than that we move into a new section not only of the book but of the story of the spread of the gospel. If you’ve been here since we started this series I hope you’ll remember in that first week we talked about the mission that Christ left to the church just before his ascension into heaven. He told the apostles that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. As we’ve spent the last couple of months working our way through the first 5 chapters of the Acts we’ve seen the first part of this mission. We’ve seen the apostles witnessing in Jerusalem. Up to this point in the book the witness has been confined to the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it’s pretty much been confined to the Temple itself. Peter and John healed the lame beggar outside the temple gates and then Peter preached a sermon in Solomon’s Colonnade that led to thousands coming to the faith. Later on we see that the apostles were teaching regularly in that same location and the church continued to grow. So the first part of the church’s mission is going pretty well. We’ve seen opposition yes, but it hasn’t affected the growth of the church or the spread of the gospel among the Jews.
Now, beginning here in chapter 6, we’ll start to see the mission move into the next phase. Up to this point the witness has been mostly confined to the Jews, but now it will begin to spread outside the city of Jerusalem and to the Gentiles as well. So let’s pick up reading with the beginning of chapter 6 and see how this shift in the mission begins.
Acts 6:1-7
Acts 6:1–7 CSB
1 In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. 2 The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.
Now we don’t know exactly when these events occur. Luke gives a rather vague description here, “in those days.” It could have been anywhere from a couple of months after the events we’ve already read about, the healing and the arrests and the trials, to several years later. From other clues within the book of Acts many scholars believe that the events starting in chapter 6 occurred about 5 years after the ascension. But regardless of when they occurred, what we know is that the church was continuing to grow. The first verse says, “as the disciples were increasing in number.” So the witnessing, the preaching and teaching at the temple was working. People were coming to know Christ. But at this point in the history of the church everyone who was coming to faith in Christ was coming out of a Jewish faith background. Even Nicolaus, mentioned in verse five as being a convert from Antioch was likely a “proselyte,” a person who was not of Jewish heritage by birth, but who had converted to Judaism. He then came to faith in Christ. But the point is, the church is continuing to grow within the Jewish faith community in Jerusalem.
But, as with any organization that experiences rapid growth, administrative problems arose. And that’s what we see here in the first few verses of chapter 6. The problem in this case was between the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews. Now I think we need to take a minute to talk about who exactly these two groups were. Throughout the history of the nation of Israel there had been ups and downs. There were cycles of them following God and falling away. And during these times of falling away there were several times when the country was conquered by foreign nations and many people were taken away into slavery. Over time they came back, rebuilt and started the cycle over again. And some of the folks that were not taken away drifted off to other cities and countries. This drifting, this spread of the Jewish people is called the Diaspora and it’s these people that Luke is referring to when he mentions the Hellenistic Jews. These are people of Jewish origin who had been born and raised in the Greek culture of the day but who had immigrated back to Jerusalem. So they were Jews by birth, by faith, but not necessarily by culture and upbringing. In fact, many of them didn’t even speak Aramaic which was the native language of the Jews in Israel at the time. Instead they spoke the Greek language that was the prevailing language of the world then. These two groups, though they were both Jewish, though they had both part of the new church, were different culturally. And that’s where the problems arose.
Verse 1 tells us that the Hellenistic Jews, the Greek speaking Jews, were complaining that the Hebraic Jews were overlooking the Greek speaking widows in the daily distribution. We talked a couple of weeks ago about how the Christians would sell property and bring the proceeds to the apostles and it would be distributed to the needy. This is what they were arguing about. The Greek speaking widows weren’t getting there needs met like the other widows were. And I don’t believe this was an intentional thing. It’s not like the Hebraic Jews said, “We’re not giving them anything because they aren’t as good as us.” The Greek word that is used here is παρεθεωροῦντο which means to neglect, but the form of the word that is used is passive. So it’s not an intentional neglect. It’s not a decision to neglect the widows. It’s, as the translation says, overlooking them. It’s a matter of different cultures not understanding how the other culture works.
So the Greek speaking believers complain to the apostles about the situation. And what is their response? It says they “summoned the whole company of the disciples.” They called the whole church together to talk about it. So they called a business meeting. And they tell them, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. Brothers andd sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” So they’re saying, “Look, our main job is to preach and teach, so it would be wrong of us to neglect this mission from God to deal with administrative matters.” This is something that the modern church seems to forget in a lot of cases. In too many churches the members want the pastor to do everything. The pastor is supposed to preach and teach, and visit the hospital, and make sure the bathrooms are clean, and on and on. It’s not that pastors aren’t supposed to do those things at all, but it’s not to be their primary responsibility.
So the apostles tell them to select 7 men who will take over this work. They will be the ones who see to the daily distribution and make sure that it is fair and no one is overlooked. But the apostles give them some guidelines, some requirements for the men they will select. They are to be of good reputation. So no they shouldn’t select anyone with any moral or ethical questions in their lives. They are also to be full of the Spirit. So they should be believers who show evidence of faith in their lives. Not just people who claim to be Christians but those who actually show evidence of their faith. Then the last requirement is that they be full of not just the Spirit, but full of wisdom also. These are men who are being appointed to deal with a problem that exists within the church. So the apostles are looking for men who have exhibited wisdom in daily life. They are looking for men who are proven problem solvers, who can deal with these administrative issues in a wise and godly manner.
Ephesians 4:11–12 CSB
11 And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,
Ephesians 4:
When I read these qualifications I immediately think of the office of a deacon. Now some of the commentaries that I read on this passage say that we shouldn’t read too much into this. They actually dissuade people from seeing this as the establishment of the diaconate, but I can’t help but think that this was the beginning of the office. Good reputation, full of the Spirit, full of wisdom. That sounds pretty similar to the qualifications that Paul gives for deacons in 1 Timothy. Paul goes into more detail than Luke does here, but everything that Paul says would fit into one of these categories.
So the apostles call for the selection of these 7 men, but then notice what the apostles do. They step back. They lay out the qualifications but then they don’t even offer any names. They don’t suggest anyone. They don’t say, pick someone with a good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, like Joe over here. No. They lay out the qualifications and then they leave the decision up to the people. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the primary responsibility of pastors. explains it.
Ephesians 4:11–12 CSB
11 And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,
So the job of the pastor, the teacher, the evangelist, is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. It’s not to do all the ministry themselves, but to equip others to do it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that pastors shouldn’t be involved in the physical work of ministry because, after all, we are included in “the saints.” But as I said before, that’s not our primary responsibility. And that’s something that the apostles understood as well. Their responsibility was to share the gospel with the Jews in Jerusalem and to teach the church. So they laid out the requirements for the men who would serve and they stepped back and let the people, whom they had taught, make the decision.
And the people chose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus and then these seven men stood before the apostles who laid their hands on them and prayed for them. Now this is another element that some of the commentaries I read said we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on, but I think it’s important. This laying on of hands is something that we still do in the modern church. When men are called out to be deacons and elders; when men are called out to be pastors we see this laying on of hands in the ordination ceremonies of most churches. When I was ordained to the ministry there was a point in the service when I and another man who was also being ordained that night were called forward, we sat in chairs facing the congregation, and then all the men in attendance who had previously been ordained were given the opportunity to come forward and lay their hands on us and pray for us. After that other members of the congregation were invited to do the same. It’s a powerful ceremony that highlights the special call placed on a person’s life by God but also the responsibilities they have to the congregation and to the church as a whole. The laying on of hands is especially powerful because it provides that physical connection to another person, to the congregation, to the history of the church. When I was ordained my brother-in-law was one of the first men to come forward and pray with me and lay his hands on my shoulder. And I think back to the time when he was ordained and the men that laid their hands on him in our home church back in Baton Rouge. I think of the godly character of those men and the heritage they passed down. And then I think of the other men who laid hands on me and the men who laid hands on them. That touch, that physical contact symbolizes a the placing of responsibility on a person. I kept wanting to say transfer of responsibility, but that’s not the right word, because the responsibility doesn’t leave one person and move to another it’s simply spread. It’s passed on. That heritage of passing on the responsibility through prayer and the laying on of hands reaches back and back through time, eventually possibly reaching back all the way to these first seven who were called out.
All of us as Christians are called to serve in some way. Some of us are called to preach and to teach. Some of us are called to lead in music. Some of us are called to work with the children in Sunday School. Some of us are called to handle the administrative duties and to make sure the business side of things in the church runs smoothly. But the key is, we are all called, and we’re all equipped, for the work of the ministry. What has God called you to do? Where is he calling you to serve? Maybe he’s calling you to help out with the kids. Or maybe he’s calling you to step up and take the lead on our monthly work at the New London Meal Center. Or maybe he’s even calling you to start something new, to lead a bible study, or a Sunday School class, or an outreach to the sailors in the barracks. Whatever he’s calling you to do, be open to it. I know it can be scary. I know you may not want to do it. Trust me, standing up here in front of you every week is not something I ever would have imagined myself doing when I was growing up. But if God has called you to something, he will equip you and give you the tools you need to accomplish it. Where is God calling you to serve?
Would you pray with me?
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