This evening we are continuing our studies in the Acts of the Apostles and our title is CHRISTIAN MINISTRY. The book of Acts is, of course, a history book that describes the evolution of the early church while it was still being formed. We haven’t, therefore, got in it a blue-print for Christian ministry as we might like. But there are fundamental principles that every church and every minister in every age has to learn and come to terms with. So with that in mind will you now turn to our passage for this evening – Acts chapter 6? And if you want to jot some notes down so that you can see where we are going, my headings are these: first, THE NEED FOR MINISTRY; secondly, THE VARIETY IN MINISTRY; and, thirdly, THE RESULT OF MINISTRY.
First, THE NEED FOR MINISTRY
And the need we see in chapter 6 is the need for senior ministers to maintain unity in the Church. Too many have too idealized a picture of the early church. Remember, most of the New Testament epistles were written because there was something wrong with the various early churches. There was gross immorality in some. There was serious heresy in others. And as we saw two weeks ago in Acts 5, there was hypocrisy that was so bad in God's eyes it resulted in the death of the two people concerned.
Well, the problem now, for which the Apostles were needed, was not hypocrisy but disunity caused by negative complaining. You see, the Church can be attacked from outside as we saw last week by persecution. But it can also be attacked from inside and slowly eroded by disunity caused by "complaining" in a negative way. Look at verse 1:
"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food."
What a contrast with chapter 4 and verse 32 where we read, "all the believers were one in heart and mind." But note three things about verse 1.
First, that word "complain" is very important. That is the word often translated in other parts of the Bible as "murmur" or "grumble" – it is a subtle form of quarrelling. It is there in Exodus 16 and 17 (Exodus 17, you will remember, was our OT reading). The people of God having escaped from Egypt were now in the desert. In Exodus 16 they were complaining about lack of food. In Exodus 17 they were complaining about lack of water. But God heard these "grumbles" and was gracious – but only in the short term. You see, at the end of the day the real problem with such negative complainers or murmurers or grumblers among the people of God in the desert, in the early church and in churches today, is not the presenting problem. Rather the real problem is their lack of faith in God as a loving God who is in control and will look after them. Exodus 17 verse 7 says this:
"And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the Lord saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'"
Because God allowed the people to have some problems and didn’t give them a completely easy ride, they doubted his reality and presence. They said, “is the Lord among us or not?” Anyone here like that this evening? You are going through a hard time, and you are doubting the power, the presence, the care and the love of God for you. Well, remember Psalm 95 that we said earlier (verses 8-11):
"Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did [that is to say, they should have known God would not let them starve or die of thirst - he'd already miraculously rescued them from Egypt and evil. So their grumbling and complaining revealed a fundamental lack of faith]. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, 'They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.' So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'"
So, long term, in the desert the grumblers, the murmurers or the negative complainers never saw the promised land. Now, back to Acts 6 and the complaining and disunity in Jerusalem.
Clearly there was a problem to do with the distribution of food. But the cause of the disunity, as distinct from the cause of the presenting problem, was the "complaining". So - the Grecian Jews were complaining negatively – such is the meaning of the word.
The second thing to note about verse 1 is that this disunity occurred "when the number of disciples was increasing." It occurred when there was church growth. Yes, when the church was growing but smaller as we have said (Acts 4.32), "all the believers were one in heart and mind." But continued growth brought problems. I met someone recently who said he was looking for a small church. He failed to realize that disunity is a problem for large and small churches. It is just that small churches have different causes of disunity. And that is why all churches should work for unity.
And the third thing to notice is that it is not clear what the presenting problem really was. Literally verse 1 can be translated (as some versions translate it) not "because their widows were being overlooked" but "that their widows were being overlooked". So:
"the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (not because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food)."
You see, it is not clear whether the Greek speaking Jews (the Grecian Jews) were really "being overlooked" or they just thought they were being overlooked. On the one hand, the Grecian Jews may have thought their widows were being overlooked because the Apostles were giving everyone the same. They thought their widows should have had more, as having to live away from their homelands. On the other hand, these Grecian Jews may have thought their widows were being overlooked because the Apostles were not giving everyone the same. For the poor Hebraic Jews were getting more than the richer Grecian Jews. But whatever the facts, what is clear is that there was a need for unity: and this was a problem for the Apostles. That brings us...
Secondly, to THE VARIETY IN MINISTRY
In the New Testament there is a variety in ministry. Here in Acts 6 you see it evolving. The Apostles had to act and act swiftly. They did not publicly discuss the rights and wrongs of the parties. Rather, they simply (verses 2-4) …
"… gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
Yes, it was essential that the senior ministers of the word did not get caught up in something that was going to take a huge amount of their time. However, these Apostles did not say,
"We're sorry! Our primary duty is prayer and 'word ministry'. Someone else must sort out this problem."
No! The Apostles took the initiative in working for unity and spent their time in reorganization until they were satisfied the problem was being dealt with. The point is this: the leadership of the Church needs to be working according to the principles of God's word. That is why the senior leaders must always be the senior ministers of the word. And here it seems that the Apostles were simply following principles the Bible suggests for sorting out this kind of management problem. It looks as though the Apostles were influenced by Moses' experience and what your read in Numbers chapter 11. You are there told that "the people complained about their hardships" (Num 11.1) and then (Num 11.16) how Moses selected not seven but seventy to help him sort out problems in the desert. So look now at Acts 6 verses 5-10:
"This proposal [to select men to sort the problem out] pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them [laying hands on was a formal or ritualized way of delegating their authority]. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people [this may have been a sign of that Apostolic authority]. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) - Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
Notice three things that relate to these verses:
First, most scholars think that these seven men were themselves Greek speaking Jews. It was surely only sensible to have Grecian Jews dealing with Grecian Jews. And a number of them we know were also "word ministers". Stephen and Philip certainly were - we are going to be studying Stephen's preaching gifts next week. And we'll learn about Philip later. But probably Nicolas was also a "word minister". Sadly there were liberal Christians in the early church that you read about in Revelation 2.14-15 who were like liberal bishops and clergy today that promote multifaithism and sexual immorality. They called themselves after Nicolas - "Nicolaitans". They may, of course, have totally distorted Nicolas' teaching. However, he must have taught something. So these junior ministers of the word were asked to spend time in this more practical ministry to allow the senior ministers to get on with prayer and their "word ministry".
It looks, however, from verses 9 and 10 that Stephen for his part was able both to sort out the problem of the widows and also to discuss and share the gospel with Grecian Jews who were not yet believers. Perhaps he had a team of others under his oversight who helped him deal with the widows. So Stephen was not just an administrator. When necessary and when asked, like the Apostles, he did administration. But he was then back preaching and teaching.
Now this model is that followed in the Church of England with regard to its leadership. You have presbyters (which when shortened becomes the word "priests") and who are senior ministers of the word. And there are deacons, like these seven, who are junior ministers of the word. And when they prove themselves they can become presbyters. So much for the growing variety in word ministry.
Secondly, notice the need for pastoral ministry - that is to say ministering to the sick and needy - and to those like widows. Some widows, without a health service or social security and away from their extended families in the Greek speaking Jewish diaspora, could be very vulnerable. So it was, and today still is, essential for the church to be involved in such practical ministry. Thank God for all the pastoral ministry at this church. But this example in the early church shows that such ministry needs to be under the oversight of those with word ministries. Widows don't only need to be given meals on wheels, they also need to be told about eternity where many of them will soon be heading. Thirdly, the Bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit equips the church – every church including this one - with all sorts of ministries. And the ministers of the word are to equip other church members for their different ministries. That is one reason why they should major on teaching or the "ministry of the word".
You read in Ephesians 4 (that great chapter on Church "unity") verses 11-12 that Christ ...
"... gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers [these are all ministers of the word],[and they are, listen] to prepare God's people for works of service [or ministry], so that the body of Christ may be built up."
If you are a believer, the Holy Spirit has given you some ministry or role to play in the body of Christ, Christ's church. And all are important ministries for the health and growth of the church. The less visible ones like car-parking patrols are all important along with the more visible ones. A chain is a strong as its weakest link. The PA team is just as vital, in one sense as the preacher. For if the PA system breaks down many cannot hear the preacher. Yes, there are varieties of ministries. So discover what ministry (or ministries) God is calling you to undertake and then obey. And don't give up when the going's hard. When we have a JCP CLASS 3 that is intended to help you discover your ministry. That brings us ...
Thirdly, and finally, to THE RESULT OF MINISTRY
Look at verses 11-15:
"Then they [some of the Greek speaking Jews who formed the Synagogue of the Freedman] secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.' So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.' All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel."
There were two results of early church effective ministry. The first result was more Church Growth. Verse 7 is clear:
"so the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."
The second result, however, is more opposition. In verse 9 we read: "opposition arose ... from members of the Synagogue of the Freedman." If you want an easy life, don't join the church; and don't be involved in any ministry. However, if you don't get involved, remember that one day God is going to hold you accountable for the ministry he has give you in this world. Remember Jesus' Parable of the Talents!
Yes, there are always problems and strains and stresses this side of heaven for all believers. You will be opposed. You will find that God allows you to be tested in ways you never dreamed of. But he is doing it for your good. He has a good plan for you. He is equipping and training you for now and for eternity in the way he knows best. The school of suffering is one of the greatest spiritual educational establishments. And so often, as in the early church, you get over one problem, immediately to find just another problem even worse. Think about Stephen.
He is a very good and able guy - full of grace and God's power. He suddenly is asked to sort out a bunch of stroppy, possibly unreasonable and probably over emotional fellow Grecian Jews. And he and the others have done a marvellous job. Unity is restored. Everyone is happy. Some of the worst complainers have apologized. The genuine needy widows have been provided for. And the church is growing rapidly, with many "priests" being converted. And Stephen is seeing miracles take place and arguments won with some of the unbelieving Jews (v 10). So he goes to bed relaxed and contented. But he wakes up in the morning to a knock on the door and finds himself arrested - "seized (v 12) and brought ... before the Sanhedrin." So immediately there is another problem – in fact trouble with a capital 'T' (as we will be seeing over the next Sunday or two).
That, from my experience, is the normal Christian life. I have found the Christian life full of great fun, great experiences, great people, but full of great problems. Nor can you expect the grass to be greener on the other side. Jesus and the Apostles never promised it would be. The Apostles taught that "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14.22). Jesus said one who follows him "must deny himself and take up his cross daily" (Luke 9.23). And now Stephen was not only arrested, he was falsely accused. Things were said about him which were not true. And you will experience that if you are faithful to Christ. So don't be surprised when it happens.
People were claiming Stephen said he was "against this holy place [the temple] and against the law" (verse 13). Jesus had the same malicious misinterpretation at his trial. Stephen probably said that neither going to the Temple nor trying to keep the law could be the means of being right with God. For it is only by trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord you will be right with God. Then you can begin to keep God's law and you will want to go to some building to meet with God's people -large like the Temple or smaller.
I must conclude. Let me do so with a question. Who, tonight, needs to hear that message of Stephen? Who has never yet put their trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord? Perhaps you are still thinking that by coming to church and trying to do good things you will get right with God. The problem is you can never be good enough and when you go to church (large or small), if its ministry is faithful, it will point you to Christ and to trust in him not your morality or your church membership (good as those things are). But if you are still wanting to ask questions about all this, why not join the Christianity Explored group that is just starting - phone or e-mail Jonathan Redfearn about that. If, however, you want to pray a prayer of commitment (for your questions have been answered), take a copy of "Why Jesus?" and read it and you can pray the suggested prayer. And you then need to go public. So if you've not been baptized, be baptized or if you need to renew your vows, you can see Jonathan Pryke about that.