Today’s episode in Acts follows the preaching of the Word to the Sanhedrin by the Apostles. You’ll recall, from last week, that the Sanhedrin openly rejected the call of the Gospel and scourged the Apostles for teaching it. This does not stop the preaching of the Word.
As you also recall from Matthew 28:18-20, Christ commanded the Apostles to make disciples of all the nations. They were commanded to baptize them in order to mark them out of the world as disciples. They were also commanded to teach Christ’s disciples everything He commanded them. This is the nature of the Great Commission: making disciples and then baptizing and teaching those disciples. This is how the Church grows.
But, in today’s episode, a problem has arisen within that work. Recall that the disciples had been generous within Jerusalem to provide for the needs of all of the members within. They ensured that there was no want.
Now, in our lives, we don’t think much about our physical needs. In the ancient world, a person spent about 90% of their labor on a daily basis just to ensure that they would be able to put food on the table that day. In fact, it’s still like that in much of the world and those here from the Philippines can attest to the poverty that many in the world experience and how little they make so that almost all their income goes in providing food just for the day. So it was in those times.
And, in the ancient world as today, widows and orphans were the least able to provide for themselves. If a woman became a widow, she not only faced the sorrow of losing her husband but also faced the real possibility of starvation. James calls real religion the caring of orphans and widows because the caring for the truly downtrodden is a reflection of our love for our Heavenly Father. Those that lose the knowledge of God in their minds and become darkened in their thinking stop caring about humanity, which is created in His divine image. They will do things for others that they can receive advantage from but widows and orphans can offer us nothing except their need for us to love them and to provide for them and only a true religion with hearts born from above will love God’s image in them enough to care.
Well, the Church was caring for widows but, unfortunately, they were overlooking the Greek-speaking widows in the congregation. The text does not indicate if this was done out of pride or to be exclusive. We all know how difficult language and cultural barriers are. It may be that those responsible for the distribution lacked the ability to communicate or the spiritual maturity for the task. The bottom line is that there was a problem. Widows were being neglected. The Church had a responsibility for this mercy ministry. The Apostles respond but it’s not quite what some of us would think is the case: “2So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”
Now, if you only see with eyes of the flesh, that response seems uncaring or arrogant. It seems as if the Apostles are saying that they’re too important to be bothered with serving tables. If you’re thinking that then I would suggest you have much to learn about the way the Apostles showed tremendous humility and would have no problem at all serving others and denying themselves.
I would also suggest that the reason it seems foreign to many of us is that we actually don’t think that the ministry of the Word is central to what the work of an Elder in Christ’s Church is.
If I were to ask you, right now, what is the most important part of our worship of God every week, what would you answer? Is it the singing? Is it the prayer? What is the most important thing?
Don’t raise your hand but did any of you think it was the preaching of the Word?
I fear that Churches have drifted so far from the centrality of the preaching of the Gospel every week that they would think of many other qualities in a Pastor first before they would judge his qualifications to properly divide the Word of Truth and preach the Word toward the building up of the Church. After all, didn’t God give us Apostles and teachers so they could be administrators? Didn’t He give us Pastors so they could be in charge of every Church activity and give guidance on how it’s supposed to be organized?
Ephesians 4 teaches: “11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
Apostles, and Pastors, were given to the Church by God to build us up on the Word. There is a reason why Pastors are called ministers and it is because they are supposed to be ministering the Word of God to us. The Word is preached to build us up in the faith so that we go forward in joy and gratitude of the Gospel to love our neighbor. We are equipped for the work of service by the Word but the Pastor’s mission is to focus, first and foremost, on the ministry of the Word and not on other areas of service.
If we actually took stock of how critical being built up in the Word was; if we actually took stock of how important the building up toward the unity of faith was, then we would completely understand the Apostles when they said it’s not good that they would forsake preparing the spiritual food that the congregation gets during Worship and leave that to go serve tables. In other words, the priority for the minister of the Word is the spiritual food that is provided. The spiritual food is more fundamental and more important. That’s why Christ turned away thousands that were simply following Him for the physical food He could multiply but had no interest in the spiritual bread and drink He offered in the ministry of His teaching.
But many in the Church have become like the thousands that forsook Christ and will evaluate a Church or a Pastor on his ability to meet their physical needs: good advice, Church programs, etc but care little about whether the Pastor can rightly divide the Word of Truth. By way of admitting sin in my own past, I used to be a Worship Leader for a Church in California. I thought the most important aspect of worship every week was when we were singing and then I sort of viewed the Preaching as the price I had to pay for enjoying the rest of the service and I took no delight in listening to the Word. Part of that was because the minister didn’t preach the Gospel but part of that, to my shame, was because I thought as a man of the flesh does: feed me with things I can touch or feel good about but I’m not interested in the spiritual benefits that the Word would teach me.
So the Apostles understand that they would be neglecting the preparation of spiritual bread that they prepared for their congregation every week. They needed to spend time in study and prayer to prepare that spiritual bread but they also didn’t just neglect the problem altogether.
Their solution was to have the congregation choose seven men who were full of the Spirit and of wisdom to serve in the extremely important task of this service. These seven men were the first deacons in the Church even though they are not called this.
You can think of it this way: the seven deacons provided for the physical needs of the congregation in order to free the Pastors of the congregation to spend the time necessary to provide for the spiritual food for the congregation. The Church absolutely needed both.
Notice that the men had to be of good reputation, and full of the Spirit and wisdom. In other words, they had to be mature Christians. They had to have the fruit in their lives of men who have demonstrated Godliness and gifting from God. They didn’t simply ask for volunteers for the task and then lay hands on any warm body that had a pulse.
You see, this work of caring for the physical needs has very important spiritual aspects. It requires wisdom and discernment. It requires maturity. By noting that the feeding of the Word of God is important, you should not get the impression that caring for the physical needs of a congregation is somehow not honorable.
It is in the physical hands of service that men and women often experience what the love of God and the results of a heart transformed by the Gospel really looks like. It is the caring of details and the sweat of the brow that love is manifested. Love is not a fuzzy feeling or an emotion but is acted out in very real ways. It is acted out in often very physical ways.
A woman was recently honored in Scotland for her service to the Gospel and especially to the poor there. She received one of the highest honors that she could receive. When asked about this award, however, she said that, when it came to taking care of the poor, she was put to shame by her husband. Her husband had the ability to serve the poor without flinching. He could walk through the most disgusting human filth and not gag or turn his face away from a man or woman that reeked of excrement, urine, and vomit but needed his physical help.
He was asked how he could do this and responded simply: “Whenever I go to help a man or woman in need, I always think of my Savior who had to wade through the most disgusting filth of my sin in order to save me from the wrath of God and it makes any physical filth I experience seem easy by comparison.”
When I hear things like this, I’m put to shame. I’m being made wise to the Gospel and by the Spirit but I know that there is much sin left to kill within me. Service of others is not an easy thing and it requires dying to self as only a person who has walked with Christ for some time can do.
These men were chosen because they had the Spiritual maturity to see what Christ had done for them and the eyes and the hands and the wisdom to serve the needs of the congregation as difficult or disgusting as that might be at times. It is maturity that allows the unpleasant to be done without complaint. It is with maturity that a man put into service for God’s Kingdom is able to consider the humiliation of service a high privilege.
One of these men, Stephen, stood out from the seven. He not only performed his duties of mercy for the members of the congregation but performed miracles and even contended for the Gospel with a group of men called the Synagogue of the Freedman who were from parts of Asia.
As we’ve been reading through Acts, you’ve noticed with me how things are starting to get tense about the Gospel. Men were annoyed in Acts 4, men were beaten in Acts 5, and now things are getting even more intense.
Stephen would reason with these men from the Scriptures and teach them about the death and resurrection of Christ. What is interesting is that the text states that they could not cope with his wisdom and the Spirit he was teaching. In other words, they couldn’t argue with him about what the Word of God taught because he was absolutely correct.
Now, what would a reasonable response be if you had to accept what the Word of God taught? I don’t know about you but I would submit to the Word of God. At least I hope I would. That’s what someone with the fear of God would do.
But this is not the normal response for most men. Most people get angry when they are challenged with the Word of God – unless God graciously opens their eyes and they submit to it. Otherwise they’ll get angry and they’ll do everything they can to shut you up. The last thing a man wants to hear when he’s got a tradition he’s hanging on to is to be convinced by God that he needs to let go of a tradition.
Have you ever heard somebody say this: “The Jews have the Old Testament but the Christians have the New Testament”?
If you ever hear it again then tell the person that said it that it’s not true.
What Stephen and this Synagogue were arguing over was the proper interpretation of the Old Testament and whether it pointed to Christ. What Christ was put to death for was His understanding of the Old Testament because it clashed with the traditional understanding by the Scribes and Pharisees. Christianity “owns” both the Old and New Testaments because both testify of and to Christ and His work.
Well, this fraternity didn’t like that Stephen wouldn’t stop teaching of the death and resurrection of Christ so what better way to shut a man up than to make up false charges about him and haul him in front of the Sanhedrin. In effect, Stephen was charged with the same thing that Christ Himself was charged with: teaching blasphemy about the Word and about Moses. In fact, just like Christ, they even brought forward false witnesses against Stephen. Please keep a mental note of the fact that this court was completely unjust and allowed false witnesses as Stephen was forced to stand alone before the court and give an answer to the Sanhedrin. I want you to remember that next week as Stephen is tried for this false crime and has no attorney present to represent him.
I hope you’re starting to get a sense for the wickedness of man and why man needs the Gospel so very much and what the consequences to our thinking are when we deny this Gospel. This portion ends with a very simple statement that Stephen’s face literally shined like an angel in their midst. I mean, come on, how many different ways can a group of people actually be blind to facts! Shouldn’t that cause someone to pause and reconsider for just a moment when you see a fellow with a face like an angel? But this is the nature men that will see things and still be blind to them. Never accept the fantasy that someone who does not believe the Gospel would believe if God performed a miracle for them. If a man doesn’t believe God and His Word then we have seen evidence after evidence that evidence itself isn’t enough to convert a man.
Indeed, Beloved, let us never forget to be continually thankful to God that our eyes have been opened to the Gospel of Christ. This passage is a good reminder to us that we shouldn’t be surprised when men speak false things against us for Christ’s sake. But this passage ought to also remind us what a tremendous blessing that we can read the things of God and see them.
Or perhaps you still refuse to see. Perhaps you too have a tradition that you’re holding on to from the world or from the Church. Maybe the idea that the Word should be central in the Church offends you. Believe the Gospel that Christ died and rose again for an undeserved sinner such as you if you would believe in His righteousness and stop trusting in your own. Be ye transformed by His Word and continually pray to Him that you might learn to love the things of God that are found in His Word and consider all other things that get in the way of its power to build up as rubbish in comparison.