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"From Grumbles to Growth"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
January 9, 2008
Theme: The early church met a problem in its midst in such a way as to expand the ministry and advance the spread of the gospel.
The early church had met serious challenges to its growth. Some of them were from "without" in the form of official hostility to the faith (4:1-3; 17-18, 21; 5:17-18, 28, 33, 40). Some of them were from "within" in the form of hypocrisy within the body (5:1-11). But in each case, and under the sovereign rule of God, a faithful and obedient approach to the challenge resulted in the advancement of the gospel and the growth of the church.
This evening's passage teaches us about yet another challenge. In this case however, there was neither hostility nor hypocrisy involved. Instead, we find that God's blessing on His gospel and upon the growth of the church led to new challenges for leadership. And from this passage, we learn that releasing qualified believers to ministry in those times of challenge helps to protect the things that are essential and advance the cause of Christ.
Copyright © 2008 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights Reserved
I. THE PROBLEM (v. 1).
A. The problem arose "in those days"—that is, in the days of the church's early growth. 5:12-16 describe a period of remarkable impact on the culture; and v. 42 reveals the great faithfulness exhibited by the church in its preaching of Christ. It was the church's growth that led to new challenges in ministry. When the church trusts in the Holy Spirit and is faithful to its call, growing pains can be—and should be—seen as a good sign.
B. Daily distributions of food were being served by the church in the care of those in its midst who were needy (2:44-45; 4:32-35). Among the neediest were the widows; and the church sought to be faithful to its call to care for them (see Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; 1 Timothy 5:3-10; James 1:27). But apparently, the Hellenistic (that is Greek-speaking) Jewish widows were being habitually overlooked in the daily distribution; and this resulted in a complaint (a "grumbling") in the midst of the church against the Hebrew-speaking Jews. There was probably no deliberate attempt to overlook anyone in this; but it does probably underscore some of the tensions and transitions that the church was going through at this time (see Acts 10-11; 15).
C. This complaint was probably not evident in an overt way. But this reminds us that such complaints need to be carefully watched-out for within the body by the leadership, that they be taken seriously, and that definite and proactive action be taken to solve the problem, "lest a root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled" (Hebrews 12:15).
II. THE DANGER (v. 2).
A. The apostles, in recognizing the presence of this problem, realized that how it was handled presented a greater challenge than the failure to meet the needs of the widows. They called the multitude together and faced the problem head-on. They pointed out that it was not "desirable" (that is, "pleasing", or acceptable or proper) that they—as the apostolic leadership of the church—should neglect their crucial duties in order to "serve tables". This was not to say that there was anything demeaning or unworthy in serving tables. Rather it was a recognition of priorities that were crucial to the call of the church; and that to meet one need to the neglect of another was not wise.
B. There is a great lesson in this. Pressing material needs may cry out to be met within the church and within the culture. But the leadership of the church must not seek to meet those needs to the neglect of greater duties that do not seem to cry out so urgently. To neglect the word of God and prayer may satisfy the immediate demands of the short- term; but it would be disastrous to the church's true calling in the long-term. Sadly, many churches today have degenerated into "table-services"—merely meeting the temporal needs that present themselves without truly meeting the needs of the soul through the gospel.
III. THE PROPOSAL (vv. 3-4).
A. The apostles, in order to meet the need and to protect the crucial ministry of the word, presented a solution. Note that this was not presented in a dictatorial manner; since it is spoken to "brethren". But clearly, the authority of the apostles was being respected in that the multitude came when called and that their initiative in solving the problem was met with the multitude's pleasure.
B. The solution was that the "brethren" were to seek out (by careful investigation) seven men to whom this important "business" would be given. They were to meet specific qualifications: (1) ethical, in that they were to be of good reputation, (2) spiritual, in that they were to be full of the Holy Spirit, and (3) practical, in that they were to be full of wisdom. Once selected, the apostles would appoint them to this work—thus freeing the apostles to "give" themselves faithfully to "prayer" and to "the ministry of the word".
IV. THE REMEDY (vv. 5-6).
A. This proposal was met by the multitude with approval. Note here that the apostolic leadership didn't force this solution upon the body; but respected that the rest of the body must be "pleased" with it. The multitude then chose (after careful examination, no doubt) seven men. The first mentioned was Stephen (whose name means "Crown of Victory"). He proved to be the church's first martyr (Acts 6:8-7:60). He is specifically mentioned as a man who was full of faith and the Holy Spirit (see 6:10 and 7:55). Philip is mentioned next. His name means "Lover of Horses"; which is interesting since he seemed to be able to run next to them quite well (8:29). He figures importantly in the story of the Book of Acts (8:4-13, 26-40; 21:8-9). The last to be mentioned was Nicolas; who is specified as a "proselyte" (to Judaism) from Syrian Antioch. Antioch would later become the center of the church's missionary activities (11:19-26). (There has been a tradition that he was the founder of a heretical group that is mentioned in Revelation 2:6 and 15; but even though this is also mentioned by the third-century church historian Eusebius in his Church History [chapter 29], this is nevertheless difficult to confirm.) All of the above names are Greek; and this may indicate that particular sympathy toward the offended Hellenists was shown—to say nothing of great wisdom—in selecting men who may be from among the Hellenists themselves.
B. The procedure that was followed involved the multitude of believers in the Spirit-led process of the selection of these key ministry leaders. After the apostles defined the qualifications, the multitude (1) approved the plan, (2) chose the men, and (3) set them before the apostles, so that the apostolic leaders could officially appoint them to ministry through prayer and the laying-on of hands (Numbers 27:18-19; Acts 13:3).
V. THE RESULT (v. 7).
A. The result was the growth of the church. First, the word of God spread; because its preachers were freed-up to devote time and energy to it. Second, the numbers of the disciples from within Jerusalem multiplied, because the word of God was being presented to them. And third—and most remarkably—a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
B. In all of this, note that the Greek word for "ministry" (diakonia) is applied to both the ministry of the word (v. 4), and to the ministry of the tables (v. 1). It is a mistake to refer to the ministry of the word only as "the" ministry. Some truly are qualified to minister the word; but others are also qualified by God to minister in other ways. Peter writes, "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:11). Both aspects of ministry—the "speaking" and the "serving" aspects—are essential; and when both are properly honored, protected, and exercised, the church grows (see Ephesians 4:11-16).