Serving Widows, Preaching the Word, and Winning Priests
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 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 of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
The Remarkable Growth of the Early Church
One of Luke's purposes in writing the book of Acts is to tell the story of the remarkable growth of the church in the years after Jesus left the earth and sent his Spirit to empower his people (Acts 1:8). You can see this if you notice how frequently he highlights the growth of the church. For example,
- Acts 2:41, "So those who received the word were baptized and
there were added that day about 3,000 souls." (In Jerusalem.)
2:47, "And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were
being saved." (In Jerusalem.)
- Acts 4:4, "Many of those who heard the
word believed; and the number of the men came to about 5,000." (In
- Acts 5:14, "More than ever believers were added to the
Lord, multitudes both of men and women."
- Acts 9:31, "So the church
throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was
built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of
the Holy Spirit it was multiplied."
- Acts 13:49, "And the word of
the Lord spread throughout all the region." (In the region of
- Acts 16:5, "So the churches were strengthened in the
faith, and they increased in numbers daily." (In the region of
- Acts 19:20, "So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily." (In Ephesus.)
I assume, since Luke is writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that he tells us these things because they are good for us to know. He is telling us about the triumphs of the gospel in the past because this would be good for us to know in the present. This is the ongoing work of the Lord Jesus referred to in Acts 1:1. It's the effect of the power of the Holy Spirit referred to in Acts 1:8.
Not a Wholly Pure Movement
It was an amazing movement, full of supernatural vigor. But it was not pure. We must not idealize the early church, and then use purist criteria to judge a true work of God in our day. It was like a net thrown into the sea of the world, Jesus said, and it was drawing into its power good fish and bad (Matthew 13:47–50).
were the likes of deceitful Ananias and Sapphira in the Jerusalem
movement (Acts 5:1–11),
- and power-hungry Simon the magician in the
Samaritan movement (Acts 8:13–24),
- and fearful, retreating John
Mark in the missionary band (Acts 13:13; 15:38),
- and doctrinally
confused Apollos in the Asian movement (Acts 18:24–28),
- and professing Christians in Ephesus who for some time concealed their black magic (Acts 19:18), and so on.
In other words, just as I said last week, a true movement of the Spirit in this fallen world will always sweep some debris into the church. This is the explanation of that strange text in Hebrews 6 where it talks about people who have participated in the Holy Spirit and tasted of the powers of the age to come and yet commit apostasy and fall away from the faith and are destroyed. They had been gripped in an external way by the power of God, but they were not born again. They were touched by the Spirit but not transformed. They were excited about supernatural power, and even experienced it, but their flesh had not been crucified (Galatians 5:24), and they had no true brokenness for sin or passion for holiness (Matthew 5:3–6).
Do We See the Same Type of Activity Today?
And therefore when we ask, are we seeing today anything like what we see in the book of Acts, I answer, yes—in many places in the world. It is not pure. It is in need of instruction. It is mixed. But all that makes it like the early Christian movement, not unlike it. For example, in the most recent World Pulse (Feb. 22, 1991, vol. 26, no. 4), reporting from News Network International, we read this about the growth of the church in Cuba:
Before 1988, the Protestant church in Cuba had between 100,000 and 250,000 believers. Today, after three years of revival, hundreds of thousands have been drawn into the church and attendance could be as high as one million. [I think that is the kind of statement Luke would write.] An observer says there may be 6,000 house churches formed by the end of the year.
Characterized by healings and other miraculous signs, the movement has drawn large crowds to many churches, as well as the suspicion of some pastors and churches. One evangelist conducting healing services on the island nation was charged with 'practicing medicine without a license.'
Many young people have converted because of the revival, and now 70% of the country's church membership is under age 30.
Now I know very little about this movement; I just read about it last week. But I think when we hear such things, we should rejoice and give thanks, and assume that it is a very imperfect, mixed, immature movement—but not that it is not a movement of God. When the kingdom of God sweeps through a region, it is like a net thrown into the sea that gathers fish of every kind which are sorted out later.
The desire to hear about such movements around the world today and to be encouraged by them and to pray for them and to serve them is a continuation of the spirit of Luke when he wrote the book of Acts and told us ten times that the Christian movement was growing, and thousands were being added in spurts and some were being added daily. One of Luke's purposes is to celebrate the growth of the Christian movement—the work of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit.
How the Church Grew and Handled Obstacles
Besides documenting the growth of the Christian movement in the early years, Luke's purpose is also to show us how it was happening and how various threats to the church and obstacles to growth were overcome. That's what this passage is about.
It begins and ends with a reference to growth. Acts 6:1, "Now in these days when the disciples were increasing . . . " Acts 6:7, "And the word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
What we have sandwiched between these two statements is a threat to the Christian movement and the story of how it was overcome. So the point of the text is to teach us how the growth of the church is threatened and how to overcome the threat.
A Two-Sided Threat to the Christian Movement
The threat has two parts.
Conflict Between the Hellenists and the Hebrews
The first part is the conflict between the Hellenists (the Greek-speaking Jews) and the Hebrews (the Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking Jews), and the resulting failure of the church to take care of the widows of the Hellenists. You see this in verse 1: "The Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution."
So there are some cultural or ethnic tensions in the Christian movement in Jerusalem. It may be that already in Jerusalem there were two movements separated along language lines (just as there were Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem and Hebraic synagogues [Acts 6:9]). And one of the results of this cultural and ethnic division was that the system developed back in Acts 4:34 to take care of the poor was not working for the minority group in the church. If that were to continue, then Christians would come into disrepute and the glory of Christ would be dimmed in the eyes of the world and the movement would experience a serious setback. That's the first part of the threat to the spread of the Word.
Leaving the Ministry of the Word
The other part of the threat to the movement is what would happen if the first part were solved in the wrong way. You can see this clearly in verse 2. "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.'"
That sounds like a defense, doesn't it? Somebody must have made the suggestion that it would in fact be a good idea if the apostles gave more hands-on time to this problem of the neglected widows. So the second part of the threat to the Christian movement was that those called to the ministry of the Word would leave that calling and serve tables.
Luke gives us a clear indication that the temptation to do this is a major threat to the movement. The way he gives us that indication is the link he forges between "the word of God" in verse 2 and "the word of God" in verse 7. In verse 2 he quotes the apostles as saying that leaving "the word of God" would be a grave mistake. And in verse 7 he reports the effect of not leaving the Word of God: "And the word of God [notice the link] increased and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly."
In other words, his point is that the Word of God kept spreading and bearing fruit because the apostles did not make the strategic mistake of leaving their focus on the word to fix a pressing problem. The major threat to the movement, Luke teaches us, is whatever threatens the ministry of the Word. And in this case it would have been something very good that was threatening it, not something bad.
In and of itself it would have been good for the apostles to express their humility by serving tables and getting involved in the nitty-gritty of caring for the widows' physical needs. James, the Lord's brother, who was no doubt in the church at that time, wrote some years later (in James 2:27), "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
It would have been a good thing, in and of itself, for the apostles to do. But it would have been a mistake for the Christian movement and for the kingdom.
So there were two parts to the threat:
- the conflict that resulted in neglected widows, and
- the danger of solving that problem in a shortsighted way that would have diverted the apostles from the ministry of the Word of God and prayer.
How They Overcame This Double Threat
God led the apostles to overcome both parts of the threat by not playing them off against each other. In verse 3 the apostles instructed the church to appoint seven Hellenistic leaders (we know they were Hellenists from their Greek names), who were full of the Spirit and wisdom, to take care of this need. They delegated. And the apostles kept on devoting themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (v. 4).
Luke celebrates this solution. The widows' were cared for, and the ministry of the Word of God was not forsaken. Both were utterly crucial. Either could have undermined the church and ended its amazing growth. The solution was the diversity of gifts and calling. The solution was a new kind of teamwork in the body of Christ. Here at Bethlehem this is what the Council of Elders will be praying and working toward this year as we try to establish our own kind of teamwork that meets practical needs and frees some for the ministry of the Word and prayer.
Celebrating the Church's Triumph
The way Luke celebrates the triumph of the church over this threat is by showing its effect in verse 7: "And the word of God [that had not been forsaken or diminished] increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
What Luke is celebrating is that the triumph over this in-house problem resulted in a new breakthrough in evangelistic power. Now, even priests, who had been so hostile (Acts 4:1), are responding to the Word of God and obeying the faith. The church had been tested. She had passed the test by caring for the widows and guarding the Word. And God honored this triumph with new power and fruitfulness.
The Word of God, Luke says, grew like a living thing—because the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It's the power of God unto salvation. We have a great message. There are places in the world where it is growing with tremendous power. I mentioned Cuba. Similar stories could be told today about the USSR and China and Indonesia and parts of Latin America.
My prayer is that no obstacles—inside the church or outside the church—will hinder the Word of God at Bethlehem, and that the same power that brought thousands into the church in Acts will do the same here and around the world.