Problems and Opportunities

Acts 6:1-7

Satan had tried to stop the church by attacking it from the outside – In ch. 4, the Jewish leaders arrested the apostles and threatened them never to speak or teach about Jesus again. That didn’t work. In ch. 5, the Jewish leaders arrested the apostles and not only threatened them, but had them flogged, warning them never to speak in the name of Jesus again. The apostles went away rejoicing in getting to suffer for Jesus – and “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” Strike two. Time for a different strategy.

And Satan thinks to himself: If the church is growing so rapidly – let’s use that against them – surely we can stir up some problems that way – Acts 6:1 “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.”

I had a friend several years ago named Felix Stalls. He was an elder in the church where I was a young minister and he loved to share bits of wisdom with me – little pieces of practical advice and sayings that have stuck with me through the years. One of those was his way of looking at situations that arise – “There’s no such thing as problems, only opportunities.” Well, here was the young church’s first “opportunity.”

As the church grew, things changed. The church became more diverse – they are no longer a homogeneous group of Hebraic Jews who all read the same Bible and speak the same language and have the same family history. As the church grew, people from other countries became Christians – they spoke Greek, they read from a different version of the Bible, they had different customs. And it’s only a matter of time before conflict arises.

It’s kind of like pre-marriage counseling. A young couple shows up in my office with stars in their eyes. Eventually we get around to talking about how to handle conflict in marriage, and they look at me and sweetly say, “we don’t really need to talk about this because we’ll never have an argument!”

This first conflict in the church comes with charges of partiality and favoritism. Now, we’ve already seen how the church was committed to taking care of the needs of its members. But somehow, in the process of the daily distribution, some of the widows – Grecian widows – were being overlooked. Was it intentional? I doubt it. Why would the church commit itself to taking care of needs – sacrificially sell their property to provide for the poor – and then intentionally neglect someone? These were growing pains – an informal system of taking care of needs is outgrown. What started as dozens, grew into hundreds and people fell through the cracks.

The church hasn’t changed much. We may not live in Jerusalem and speak Greek and Hebrew, but people haven’t changed. When Satan can’t destroy a church from without, he turns his attention to creating conflict within. He uses those pressure points that have always worked: the church is neglecting me, the church doesn’t care, I have needs that aren’t being met. And then he makes it about “us” and “them.” He has always delighted in exploiting differences in people, setting one group against another, and feeding conflict and complaints until they become divisiveness and division. He twists our perspective from seeing the church as a family who delights in taking care of its own, to an organization that neglects needs and abandons widows.

Do you think the early church intentionally set about alienating and disenfranchising people? That was the accusation. They said, “You apostles don’t care.” They were wrong, the apostles did care – the church did care. It happens today – needs are sometimes neglected, people fall through the cracks. Intentionally? Of course not, but it happens. Does it mean the church doesn’t care? No, it means we’re human and make mistakes.

The key is not to let it become us against them. When that happens, Satan wins. Instead, it has to be us against him – finding ways together to make the church what God calls it to be.

I love how the apostles handle it. They don’t try to defend themselves or make excuses – they address the problem with a solution that involves the very people who are making the complaint. But the solution also protects some very important priorities – vss. 2-4 “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 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

Several things just took place:

The first thing that happens is that the apostles gather the whole church together – and remember, this is several thousand people. They make this a church problem to solve, not a top down solution. It is not expedient, but it is effective. They do not abdicate their leadership responsibilities, but they involve everybody in the decision making process – and it’s amazing how, when people have a voice in a decision, even if it’s not their first choice, will support the outcome. They defeat the “us against them” syndrome – the “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude. Notice what Luke says in vs. 5 – “This proposal pleased the whole group.” Of all the miracles in the NT, that had to be one of the most amazing!

The second thing we learn is that the apostles took prayer and preaching very seriously. Those two priorities were so important that they would not let anything else take their place. And I’ll tell you from my experience that those are tough priorities to protect. The practical, day-to-day requirements of ministry are always calling. The urgent things like overflowing toilets or air conditioner repairs – the important things like hospital visits or counseling. You can fill up a week with the urgent and important and completely push the most important right off the page. But a minister who does not protect his priorities of prayer and the ministry of the word will be preaching from dry wells before too long. The greatest enemy of the best is not the worst, but second best. And Satan tries to distract the apostles by getting them occupied with the second best. But they protect their first priorities.

The apostles set some guidelines and turn the process over to the church -- “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Notice that the nature of the qualifications is spiritual – “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” These are to be godly men whose hearts are focused, whose lives are led by God’s Holy Spirit. And look at the men they select – “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.” It may not have jumped out at you, but the names are all Greek names. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were all Greeks, but it is a good indication that there was a cultural connection there. These men are their men, trusted leaders among them. And we’re going to hear a couple of these names again in Acts – Stephen will be the first Christian martyr, Philip will be a missionary to Samaria, and Philip will also be the one who leads the Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Jesus.

Having selected these men, the church presents them to the apostles and the apostles pray over them, lay their hands on them and commission them to do the work of caring for the needs of the widows.

What are you going to call them? Everybody agrees that these men were the first “deacons” of the church, though they are not named as such here. And what it points out is that in the church, title followed function. They were called deacons because that’s what they did – “deacon” is the Greek word for servant.

There’s no such thing as appointing a “Deacon” and then looking for something for him to do. They were called deacons, not as a title, but as a description of what was already a part of that person’s character – they were already servants before they were ever called deacons.

And I don’t mean to put a kink in anyone’s theology, but when you read Romans 16, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (servant) of the church in Cenchrea.” It’s the same Greek word (diakonos). You see, the word deacon was never an office or title (capital D) or even church leadership, but a description of a person who was recognized as a servant – one who was already pouring him or herself out in serving others. And that’s been part of our problem over the years – appointing men to an office, giving them a title, hoping it will translate into increased involvement, but if a person isn’t already a servant, they will never be a deacon.

And in a similar way, “elders” were called that because they had the wisdom that comes with age and experience – they were called “shepherds” because they led and cared for the needs of their people – they were called “overseers” because they were responsible for looking after the concerns of the congregation. The church had no offices without responsibility or meaningless titles, they were descriptive of the functions which these men filled. And it also points out a flexibility in the way the church responds to specific needs. Jesus didn’t hand the apostles an organizational flow chart with lines to fill in with names. When needs like the care of widows grew beyond the informal system they started with, the apostles responded with an innovative means of taking care of them.

Now, all this brings us to vs. 7. What could have happened and what Satan had hoped was that the church would be polarized, that its effectiveness would be blunted, and that the apostles would be distracted. But instead – “…the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

It was a watershed moment. Instead of destroying the effectiveness of the church, it was an opportunity to have an even greater impact. As a direct result of how they handled this situation, more people than ever were persuaded to follow the Lord. It’s an old saying but it’s true – “people don’t care how much you know until the know how much you care.” Because of how the church cared for its widows, a door was opened for people to listen to the truth of Jesus Christ.

And we have those same opportunities every day. Things you might not think of as evangelistic, like housing the homeless or buying groceries for a family or sitting with the sick or repairing a widow’s front porch – are open doors into the lives of people. When people see the way we serve, it affirms and legitimizes the truth of what we teach. The way we handle problems and resolve conflicts are open doors when people see the way we demonstrate love and respect for one another instead of polarizing and splitting – they say, “those people practice what they preach.”