Structure For Success: The Body of Christ

A Study of Acts 6:1-10

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. So the Twelve 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal 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.

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. 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.

Chapter six of Acts opens with a seemingly innocuous verse, but this verse has led centuries of speculation surrounding what Luke meant when he wrote “Grecian Jews” and “Hebraic Jews.” The purpose of this study is not settle this argument, but rather to examine the amazing success of the early church in light of the structure God ordained for it. It was not accident that the church grew so fast in those early years, and we will see that obedience to God’s instructions and employing His godly wisdom resulted in that undeniable success.

1. The Problem, 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.

Luke is vague as he begins this chapter. We aren’t sure exactly when “In those days” refers to, but it seems likely that he has in mind the days immediately following the trial of the apostles and their concerted effort to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. A result of this hard work and concentrated effort was that the Christian church in that city grew at an astonishing rate. Because Luke doesn’t give us exact figures, we can only surmise what the membership of the Jerusalem church was by now. Kistemaker estimates that “the church doubled in size from the last figure Luke provided: five thousand men.”

Notice that the new converts to Christianity were called “disciples” by now. It is used here for the first time in Acts and means literally “learners.” Early on in the development of the Church, it was used only of the Twelve, but as the Church grew and grew, the word came to describe all believers in general. F.F. Bruce notes:

“Disciples” is perhaps the most characteristic name of the Christians in Acts.

In our modern minds we think of “discples” as “followers,” but they were not merely followers of Christ or followers of the Twelve. They were students; they were ones who learned the teachings of Christ through the words of the Apostles. To be a disciple was not merely signing the Jerusalem church register, but being an active learner of the ways of Christ.

That should describe church members today, but all too often it does not. Our churches seem to be populated not only by lazy preachers behind the pulpit, but but lazy pupils in the pews as well.
The number of the disciples was growing at a continual rate, as suggested by the Greek. It is a “golden rule” of Ecclesiology that the more members a church has, the more potential problems is has. This certainly was the case in Jerusalem at this time. The church grew, and the “complaining” started. The Greek word is often translated as “murmuring” and suggests the buzzing sounds bees make.

The complaining came from “Hellenists,” or Greek-speaking Jews. We know from the early chapters of Acts that many Jews came to Jerusalem from all over the world at Pentecost to worship. Apparently many of these devout Jews were elderly and wanted to live out the remainder of their lives in the holy city. Many, also, had accepted Christ’s Gospel and had become believers. Because they spoke Greek, they worshiped in their own synagogue and read from their own Scriptures, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament.

On the other hand, there were the Hebraic Jews, or Jews that spoke Aramaic. They worshiped in their own synagogues and read from the Hebrew Scriptures.

And the problem involved the daily distribution of food for widows, primarily food for the Hellenistic Jewish widows. Apparently with the increasing number of believers came an increasing number of Hellenistic widows dependent on relief from the Church. The Aramaic-speaking Jews were the majority in Jerusalem, but the widows in the minority group felt overlooked. Because of their newfound faith in Christ, they could no longer ask for or expect help from their Synagogues.

The first problem in the Church, sadly, is a common problem to this day. Many commentators note the prejudice that existed between these two groups, but the problem was a much deeper one and it has to do a prevailing attitude of envy. One person sees what another has and feels they are entitled to it. It is entirely probable that the Greek-speaking Jewish widows were unintentionally neglected, but their responsibility was not to complain, but to approach the leaders of the Church with their concern.

2. The Simple Solution, verses 2-3

So the Twelve 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.

What is particularly noteworthy is that the moment the Apostles were made aware of the problem, they gathered the believers together to propose a solution. They did not ignore the problem; they dealt with it straightway. Implicit in the Apostle’s swift action is the realization that spiritual and material needs are often intimately connected in Christian experience, and one affects the other.

At the meeting of all the believers, the Apostles presented a God-ordained solution and a simple lesson in pastoral theology: “It is not right for us to stop teaching the word of God to serve at tables.” In other words, the primary duty of the Apostles was to teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is also the primary task of the pastor today. All other duties are secondary no matter how important they may be. Funerals, marriages, baptisms, committees , food banks, all these things are important, but they all take a backseat to the ministry of the Word of God to the people of God.

The solution was remarkably simple: qualified men in the church are able to perform certain duties, including the distribution of food to the Greek-speaking widows. Therefore, the Apostles proposed that seven men be appointed to this job.

Some observations about this solution.

  • Why seven? In the Bible, the number seven represents “fullness” or “completeness.”
  • While Luke does not refer to these men as “deacons,” the Apostles did ordain seven men to look after this particular need.
  • The qualified men had to meet two basic requirements: they had to have a good reputation and be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.

These are still the qualifications essential in Christian workers today. The seven candidates were to be chosen by the whole congregation. This was important so as to head off any complaints from any member of favoritism or preference for one person or group above another.

3. The Intentional Result, verse 4

[We] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

The immediate result of this action was that the Apostles could devote themselves to the two most pressing needs of the Church, and the primary purposes for it’s very existence: prayer and the preaching the Word. F.F. Bruce offers an interesting take on this intentional result. Concerning prayer, Bruce wrote: “The regular worship of the church is what was meant.” In other words, whatever else the Church of Jesus Christ can be involved with, nothing takes precedence over the ministry of the Word of God.

4. Unintended Results, verses 5a, 7

This proposal pleased the whole group. 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.

Because the Apostles’ decision and solution was ordained by God and they were simply following God’s will, all the people were in accord with them, and they chose, curiously enough, seven men, all with Greek names, in an obvious attempt to make an overture to the Hellenistic Jewish believers. Luke writes that the solution “pleased” the church in Jerusalem. The word suggests a basic harmony between leaders and members. Whenever there is obedience to God and His Word, there will be harmony within the Church. This is one minor unintentional result of the Apostle’s decision.

Strife and disunity follow when church leaders work in opposition to God’s will and God’s Word.

As a sidelight, the first one chosen and mentioned was Stephen. The fact that Luke places him at the head of the list is likely due to the fact that he would become the first Christian martyr. Appropriately, Stephen means “crown,” and he was the first to receive the martyr’s crown.

Verse seven gives us the major unintentional results of this godly decision: The word of God spread and the number of disciples increased rapidly.

First, the Word of God spread. This was a natural result when those who were best qualified to preach and teach it were now free to do so because they weren’t mired in the day-to-day management of church business.

In a bygone era, ministers used to put the initials V.D.M. after their name. This was not some kind of academic or professional degree, but was an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Verbi Domini Minister, which means “minister of the Word of the Lord.” In the strictest sense, a pastor is not a minister of a local congregation, even though the Session or board of a local church oversees his work and the local church pays his salary. A pastor is a minister of Christ’s Gospel, he is a servant of God’s Word, and as such he must devote fully to the task of proclaiming the Good News.

And second, the church grew even faster because the Word was promulgated. It is the Word causes the Church of Christ to grow. The Church may be engaged in many, many worthy and worthwhile activities, and it should be, but it is the Word of God, preached faithfully, respectfully, and honorably that the Lord honors.

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