Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
We’ve been teaching through the book of Acts, and we turn now to chapter 6. There’s a line from Jesus in the gospel of Matthew that should never drift too far into the background as we read the book of Acts. Jesus told Peter and the other disciples, and he tells us, that he “will build [his] church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Thus far in the book for Acts we’ve seen an array of challenges that could have prevailed against the growth of the church of Jesus Christ. A change of leadership after a moral failure in chapter 1. Differing languages preventing the spread of the gospel in chapter 2, and as well as now in chapter 6. Arrests and persecution in chapters 4 and 5. The internal erosion of hypocrisy and greed and jealously, also in chapter 5. And yet the Lord builds his church. But with this growth comes new challenges.
Follow along with me as I read Acts 6:1–7, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher and study this passage together.
6 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, 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. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Sometime in 2012, another pastor sent me an email with only six words. The email said simply:
More people to love.
That email changed things for me. When I received it, the church I was serving was growing rapidly. Someone needed to evaluate the current trends and create a plan to accommodate the growth. I drew from my former career in engineering, opened up Microsoft Excel, and took a hard look at our attendance data. I created pretty graphs and conservative growth projections for the next few years, and I sent them to all of the staff and elders in an email.
There’s a line in the movie Boss Baby where one of the main characters says to the other, “One great can memo change the world.” That email was my memo.
At that time, I primarily viewed the new people as more of a problem than a blessing. Of course there was some truth to the fact that the line on the graph representing attendance might as well have been labeled “Benjamin’s workload.” For every fifty new people, could I really keep adding five hours to my workweek? At some point, simply trying harder wasn’t going to solve the problem. (Again, there’s that word, problem.)
Then, just a few minutes after I sent my concerned email, I received John’s reply: “More people to love. Thanks, John.” That’s all it said. I remember staring at my computer screen. The contrast between my approach and John’s was stark. He was ready for adventure, ready to see his story and the story of our church in light of the Big Story of the Bible, which is to say the Big Story of the expansion of the love of God to more and more people. He was ready for that adventure. I was not.
Following the sting that I had as I read his response and thought about my own response, came repentance.
As we read the book of Acts, a theme we’ll need to discuss from time to time is growth, both the growth of spiritual maturity and numerical growth. Growth seems to be a thing Luke wants us to notice as he narrates all that Jesus continued to do in building his church.
We’ve already seen and preached about some of the numerical growth of the early church. The 11 apostles became 12 again (chapter 1). The 120 disciples became 3,000 (chapter 2). The 3,000 became 8,000 when another 5,000 were added (chapters 3–4), and that was just the men. We are easily way over 10,000 new Christians by the time we hit chapter 6. Speaking of chapter 6, here we get the first summary verse about growth. There are six of them in the book of Acts. The six verses won’t be on the screen. Just listen to them.
Acts 6:7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
Acts 12:24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
Acts 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Acts 19:20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
Acts 28:30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
When you press into the context of each, you realize the growth co-existed with difficulties. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, did not necessarily provide the peace we would typically associate with the things necessary for growth. Instead, mingled with the growth, perhaps in some cases despite the hard things and in other times directly through the hard things, Jesus builds his church.
Last year I was talking to another pastor about church growth. This pastor leads a church far larger than our church. And I told him about the growth at my former church, the one where I worked with the guy named John who sent me that email. In my three years at that church, we went from 700 adults attending regularly to nearly 1,200 adults. We went from a handful of small groups to over forty small groups meeting every night of the week throughout the city. And did I mention that I was the associate pastor of connections and small groups, which I mention not to take credit for the growth so much as to complain about the growth; we launched thirty-five small groups, so about one a month for three years. It was exhausting.
When I told that story to my pastor friend at a larger church, he nodded and said, “Oh, that kind of growth will break things.” I sensed he said it from experience, that he had the scars to show it, and probably so did some in his church.
In the passage today, we see that the explosion of growth of the early church, while wonderful and exciting, also broke things. What we see in the passage is that growth without structure can actually present challenges that could impede the spread of the gospel. It doesn’t take a large church for people to fall through the cracks. And I don’t use that cliché lightly. Falling through the cracks has become a cliché that makes us callous to the reality. The actual experience of falling through the cracks at a church can leave bruises that don’t heal quickly. Maybe some of you have those bruises from other churches. Maybe you have them from us. Maybe you have them from me.
The good news is that God loves his people enough to confront our sin and help build structure for his church. He does all this so that in all things he might be praised. He loves his church and builds structure for the sake of the widows and poor among us, for the sake of the health of the leaders among us, for the sake of church attenders, for the sake of outsiders watching from a distance.
1. The Problems, vv. 1–2
As the passage opens up, we see the problems right away. Look with me at vv. 1–2 again.
6 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
Do you see the problems? Notice I said problems, not just problem. There is more than one problem. You probably saw the issue of the distribution of food, but there is also the issue of who does what to solve the first problem. If we were to read between the lines a little, I suspect that some were saying it was right for the apostles to wait on the tables (a point made by John Piper in his March 17, 1991 sermon “Serving Widows, Preaching the Word, and Winning Priests” on this passage).
But let me talk for a moment about the widows and the food distribution. Luke calls one group the Hellenists and the other the Hebrews. What is that about?
You might be tempted to think that because Hellenist has the word “hell” in it, that Hellenist has something to do with hell. It actually has nothing to do with that. Hellenist is simply the word to describe Greek culture and those who speak the Greek language. In this case, Hellenist would have been used to describe the Jewish people who formerly attended a Greek-speaking synagogue. The Hebrew group, conversely, spoke Aramaic, which was a Hebrew dialect. In Jerusalem, which is where the early portions of the book of Acts all take place, the vast majority of Jewish people and the vast majority of then-newly converted Christians came from which group? The Hebrews. The smaller group—the minority group and the group who came from outside of Jerusalem—was the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Christians.
Do you see the weight of this problem more clearly—they charge the majority culture of overlooking the minorities? If this is mishandled, all the growth and all the unity could evaporate under the heat of selfish and sinful treatment of other believers.
And then consider that there was a way to go about fixing the problem that actually created more problems. If the apostles waited on the tables, who would preach and pray and lead? It’s not that one job was important and the other was not. Clearly, this passage shows both were important. But there was a way for the apostles to fix one problem while creating others. I’ll put it like this. If you’re out in public, but the tag on the back of your shirt keeps scratching you, well, there are different ways to solve that problem. You can take your shirt off, but that creates other problems doesn’t it.
2. The Solutions, vv. 3–6
Let’s see how the church responded to these challenges. Look with me at verses 3–6.
3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, 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. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Although they are not called this, many consider this passage as the first instance of installing deacons within a church. The word deacon means servant. The noun of deacons, although not necessarily as a title of a church office, shows up in this passage. And the verb of servant—the verb of deacon—shows up twice in this passage. In v. 1, the word for daily distribution means the daily service, the daily deacon-ing. In v. 2, the apostles say they shouldn’t give up the preaching of the word to serve tables, that is, they shouldn’t give up the preaching of the word to deacon tables, so to speak. In v. 4 the apostles say they will give themselves to the ministry of the word, or the service of the word, or more literally the deaconing of the word.
About thirty years after this event in Acts 6, the apostle Paul—who isn’t even a Christian yet—will write to two young pastors, one named Timothy and another named Titus. Paul instructs them (and us!) on how to organize leadership within a local church, namely, the offices of elder and the office of deacon, and we believe deaconess. So if you wonder why churches have these roles, it’s because we are trying to pattern our church after the leadership structure in the New Testament.
One pastor has said that deacons serve the church by being shock absorbers. Shock absorbers on a car are not necessarily the most sexy things about a car. In most cases, you can’t even see the shock absorbers unless you poke around a bit. Perhaps in some supped-up Jeep or monster truck, you can see the shocks, but otherwise, shock absorbers go about their business effectively and quietly, bringing health and stability to the vehicle. Shock absorbers protect everything else about the car, including the passengers and drivers.
So how does the church in Acts 6 address the problem? The leaders call seven men who are spiritually qualified to lead this ministry. They are full of the Spirit and wisdom and have a good reputation. Don’t miss those qualifications. Many a church has erred in overlooking the spiritual qualifications for those in ministry, prioritizing white-collar professions above blue-collar professions. He’s a lawyer, or she’s a doctor, so they’ll be good at this. Maybe. Maybe not. God is interested in spiritual maturity and character that’s been tested (cf. 1 Timonthy 3:10).
While the listed qualifications are obvious to us because they are so plainly stated, but there is something not as obvious to us but would have been so to them. All of the names in this list, except perhaps Phillip, were Greek names. Think about that. Let that sink in. The majority of the early Christians were Hebrew speaking. An issue is raised that they are neglecting a vulnerable and weak part of their community. They see that problem as a real problem. And they empower six men, if not all seven, from among the minority to meet the need. They gave away power. Oh, these leaders must have been captivated by the gospel, where they saw Jesus do that for them. Jesus gave up his rights and power for the sake of enemies. Surely, they could now do the same for their brothers and sisters. And they did, and we should too.
This last year we’ve really been trying to think through how to better love those among us who are not a part of majority culture, I’m thinking specifically of our immigrants and refugees. Last summer when we wrote the job description for the new associate pastor of connections, we added lines about this. The beginning of the job description reads, “The connections pastor will serve as the primary shepherd to move people from visitor to engaged member at our church, helping us to become the type of community God desires local churches to be. He will implement strategies to integrate a growing refugee population into membership and full participation in the life of the church.”
That’s good. That’s really good. But as I read this passage, I long to be more explicit. Yes, to full participation in the life of the church. But let me be explicit that I’m praying for the day when the leadership of the dozen or so different ministries at our church look more diverse. That is full participation.
Speaking of this, let’s talk about for our church a bit longer. Last year we had a beloved pastor transition to another church. Right before he told me he was going to leave, we had spent six months as pastor-elders updating our constitution and bylaws. We did that refresh for many reasons, but the most pressing reason was that the current practice of our leadership of the deacon and deaconess ministry (the men and women who serve at shock absorbers) was not only out of step with our own bylaws and constitution, but we believed in some small but significant ways out of step with the Bible.
Now, let me be clear. There were and still are a number of great people doing great deacon and deaconess work. The problem was not so much the small handful of really dedicated people who were serving the church thanklessly as shock absorbers. Jay Martin comes to this building at all hours of the day and night to drain and fill values that most of us do not even know exist, let alone what each valve does. There are feveal “Jay Martins” at our church. The problem was that most of the ministry was not defined. So we spent time over six months rewriting those sections. The goal was to officially commission men and women here at the church to lead us in serving those in and outside of our church.
That was the plan. And we did all that—sort of. We rewrote the bylaws, and our membership approved them in April of last year. We were going to spend the next nine months building out that deacon and deaconess ministry. Instead, because our small staff got even smaller, we’ve spent the last nine months scrambling and finding a new pastor and making sure the visible ministry of the church, the preaching of the word, and the invisible ministry of this church, knowing people and praying with them, was happening as best as we could do.
In August I thought to myself that even if Pastor Jason were here this would have been the most difficult fall ministry season I’ve ever had at our church. There were five weddings to officiate, my ordination to prepare for, a shoulder surgery, and 30 people who asked to join small groups, and oh, by the way, those small groups that the new people wanted to join didn’t exist yet. And something I didn’t realize but now realize was that not only would it be challenging to be short-staffed, was that the meetings to find a new staff member would take an extra 2–4 hours a week. It was a double whammy of missing man-hours and spending man-hours.
And yet through it all, the fears I expressed to some of you about attendance and giving and growth and other problems haven’t happened. None of them happened. We’ve never been larger, our giving is strong, and people are wrestling with what the gospel means for their lives. In short, more people to love.
Growth can break things. But I will tell you that my desire to serve you and this church is strong. This year has stretched thin my ability, but I’m here. And you’re here. And I want to challenge us to keep running together. It’s worth it.
Let me be very practical at how you can apply this passage. What is your biggest frustration here at church? I don’t mean that you don’t like the kind of coffee we serve. What do you see as a real problem, something hindering our effectiveness at reaching people with the gospel and hindering the maturing of Christians among us? Think about that problem. Write it on a card, maybe your sermon notes, and spend a week praying about it. Ask God to give you insights into what you perceive the problem to be and why it might be hurting our church and how you can be part of the solution.
If you don’t see anything at our church that we can improve, you might not actually be here. You might be here, but you’re not really here. Remember, for them to see the plight of these widows, and for them to create a solution to that problem, they had to consider the problems of the community their own problems. If you can walk through this church and see the problems of our church as a problem for our leadership or as problems for someone else to fix, then to what extent is this really your church? I’m not talking to newcomers, but those who have been coming for the last six months or a year or more. If this is your church, then we are in this together.
At a time when culturally a growing number of people are skeptical and cynical about institutions, if you are a Christian—if Jesus has changed you and adopted you into his family—then this passage is calling you to sacrificially invest in the institution called the local church. It might be costly. But it will be worth it. It cost Stephen dearly. He was listed first, and he’s the first to die. This week, they lay hands on him and commission him to leadership. In next week’s passage, he’s dead.
But don’t miss all the good that happened in the meantime.
3. The Results, v. 7
Look with me again at the summary comments in v. 7.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
A lot of really wonderful things are mentioned in that verse. Lives are changed. Generations have been changed. Family trees have been changed. The struggles that come with more people to love doesn’t mean you are necessarily doing things wrong. The struggles of ministry and the blessings of God can co-exist, and they often do. They did in the book of Acts and they do here at our church right now.
And don’t miss that line about the priests. Luke writes, “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” The fiercest of all enemies can be saved. The way Jesus builds his church is by loving outsiders until they become insiders in the power of the gospel. And if this is how Jesus builds his church—if Jesus even saves priests who were so hard-hearted—it means that all the effort that is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to reach the priests, and it means that all of the ministry so far in the book of Acts—the continued preaching amidst fierce opposition—it was not in vain.
Jesus loves his church, and then and now he is building his church with more and more people to love.