Brothers, Beware of Sacred Substitutes
Ministry is its own worst enemy. It is not destroyed by the big, bad wolf of the world. It destroys itself. That is the point of Acts 6:2-4: "And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.' "
Without extended and consecrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers up and bears no fruit. The 120 were devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14) when the Spirit fell and gave them utterance with 3000 converts. These converts were also devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42) when signs and wonders were done and people were added to the church daily (Acts 2: 43, 47). Peter and his friends were engaged in prayer when the place was shaken and they were filled with the Spirit and spoke the Word boldly (Acts 4:31). Paul relied on prayer that he might be given utterance to open his mouth and proclaim the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 6:19).
Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers. And when the ministry of the Word declines, faith (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2, 5) and holiness (John 17:17) decline. Activity may continue, but life and power and fruitfulness are gone. Therefore, whatever opposes prayer opposes the whole work of ministry.
Unhealthy Ministry Breeds Insipid Prayer
And what opposes the pastor's life of prayer more than anything? The ministry. It is not shopping or car repairs or sickness or yard work that squeezes our prayers into hurried corners of the day. It is budget development and staff meetings and visitation and counseling and answering mail and writing reports and reading magazines, and answering the phone.
The effort to meet needs is the enemy of prayer. Literally, Acts 6:3 says, "Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this need." The care of the widows was a real need. And it was precisely this need which threatened apostolic prayer.
But the apostles would not yield to the temptation. This must mean that prayer demanded a large part of their quality time. If they had thought of prayer as something you do while washing dishes or cooking (or driving a car between hospitals), they would have not seen table serving as such a threat. Prayer was a time-consuming labor during which other duties had to be set aside.
Extended Seasons of Prayer Are Necessary
They had learned from Jacob and from Jesus that whole nights may have to be spent in prayer (Gen. 32:24; Luke 6:12). Under the drain of ministry we must "withdraw to the wilderness and pray" (Luke 5:16). Before significant pastoral encounters we must pray alone (Luke 9:18). For Jesus and the apostles the work of prayer demanded significant amounts of solitude: "In the morning, a great while before day, He rose and went out to a lonely place, and there He prayed" (Mark 1:35).
The apostles said, "We will devote ourselves to prayer" (Acts 6:4). The word translated "devote ourselves" (proskartereo) emphasizes the unbending commitment of the apostles to preserve time for prayer. It means "to persist at" and "remain with." It is used in Acts 10:7 to refer to the loyalty with which some soldiers served Cornelius. The idea is to be strong and persistent and unwavering in one's assignment.
So the apostles were saying: No matter how urgent the pressures upon us to spend our time doing good deeds, we will not forsake our chief work. We will persist in it. We will not waver or turn aside from the work of prayer.
Constantly Devoted to Praying
This word (proskartereo) comes to be firmly attached to the ministry of prayer in the early church. In Acts 1:14 the disciples "devoted themselves to prayer," and in Acts 2:42 to "prayers." Then in the epistles of Paul this practice becomes a command: "Be constant in prayer" (Rom. 12:12). "Continue steadfastly in prayer" (Col. 4:2). "Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints" (Eph. 6:18). The more heavily engaged one is in battling the powers of darkness, the greater will be one's sense of need to spend much time in prayer. Therefore, the apostles combine "prayer" and "the ministry of the Word" and free themselves from time-consuming good deeds.
The importance of prayer rises in proportion to the importance of the things we should give up in order to pray. If the work we are to give up is a work which requires great spiritual depth and power, then how much more crucial and demanding must be the work of prayer? And this is just the case in Acts 6:3.
The text does not say, "Apostles should do the spiritual work of prayer and get some practical folks to serve tables." It says, "Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom." (Trustees ought not to be worldly financiers. They ought to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom.) It is not just the diddling demands of the pastorate that threaten our life of prayer. Prayer is also menaced by opportunities for ministry which demand fullness of the Spirit and wisdom. Even this we must forsake in order to devote ourselves to prayer.
Brothers, beware of sacred substitutes. Devote yourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.