A Great Church – 4. A Place to Serve

April 25, 2010

Acts 6: 1 - 7
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - "Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Jesus declared that he did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). On the night before he was crucified, when the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he took a towel and basin and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. By that one simple gesture he showed forever what sort of man he was and what sort of people we should be. He came to serve, and in his death on the cross he served all humanity. Was Jesus great? He was great because he was God’s servant.
Greatness is open to all because anyone can be a servant. We generally don’t realise this until a crisis comes. Most of the time we rock along contentedly, knowing that someone else will do the serving. That’s why we elect presidents and prime ministers, why we call pastors and hire staff. Serving is fine with us as long as someone else does most of the work.
How a Crisis Became an Opportunity
The crisis happened as the number of disciples was increasing. The Word of God spread rapidly as many people believed. Instead of derailing the church, this crisis propelled it to even faster growth. Surely this is a mark of God’s hand of blessing. Even the bad things work out for good.
What happens takes place in a period of persecution - the church emerged stronger than ever. Time of unusual spiritual unity and amazing spiritual harvest. Satan often attacks at the moment when things are going well. Luke describes the problem, the solution, and the very positive result. When we get to the end, we discover that more people are serving the Lord, more people are being won to Christ, and the unity of the church has been restored.
1. The Problem v. 1
First case of racial prejudice in the Christian church. The church has grown so fast - outstripped its leadership base. In the early days the apostles and their helpers could easily care for everyone. As thousands joined the growing movement, it was inevitable that some people would fall through the cracks.
Although the early church was entirely Jewish, it was made up of 2 different groups of Jews. The Hebraic Jews were Jewish-Christian converts who spoke Hebrew. They had been born and raised in Israel, knew the customs of the synagogue intimately, and brought their extensive culture with them when they entered the church. By contrast the Grecian Jews were Jewish-Christian converts who spoke Greek because they had been born and raised outside Israel. When they came to Christ, they brought their Greek-speaking culture with them. This means they probably looked a bit different and certainly acted and sounded different from the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians.
This was a recipe for trouble. As long as things were going well, the differences could be ignored. However, the Jerusalem church was never rich, and eventually there were problems in the daily distribution of food for the widows from the 2 groups. The Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christian widows were being favoured over the Greek-speaking Jewish Christian widows. Perhaps it wasn’t being done intentionally, but nevertheless one group of widows was being favoured over another group.
It’s easy for us to dismiss this as a fairly minor problem. It wasn’t. If you were a Greek-speaking widow in the Jerusalem church, it was a big deal because you weren’t being fed. Churches routinely split over issues much less important than this.
How should the church tackle this problem? Appoint a Food Distribution Task Force to study the matter and report to the elders - call a prayer meeting - have a business meeting and shout it out. Maybe end up starting a new church – The Jewish-Christian Greek-speaking church of Jerusalem.
2. The Solution (v. 2 – 6)
The solution involves a 4 step process.
Step 1: Setting Priorities v. 2
Immediate response - “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together.” Clear statement of priorities - “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Seems a bit harsh - some say: “Wouldn’t it be great if the apostles got together and took over the feeding of the Greek-speaking widows? That would send a powerful message to the congregation, and it would be a way to bring the 2 groups together. After all, the apostles are all Hebrew-speaking Jews and this would prove that they are concerned about the Greek-speaking widows.” What could be better than for the leaders to set the pace in personally solving this problem? It’s so easy, and so tempting, to adopt that strategy.
But it would have been dead wrong. That idea would actually have caused the apostles to disobey God’s will. They understood that God had called them to the ministry of the Word and to prayer. Anything that moved them away from that priority—no matter how good or noble or necessary it might be—was actually a diversion from their calling.
The same holds true for spiritual leaders in general. In any church there are many tasks that need to be done. Tempting to say to the leadership, “Do a little of everything.” That leads to spiritual disaster. When leaders do a little of everything, they end up doing a lot of nothing. Since the church is built upon the Word of God, leaders must devote themselves to the study and teaching of the Word to the congregation. Nothing must be allowed to take the place of this central priority.
Obviously we’ve moved into another era of church life, with pastors now being responsible for large budgets, multiple programs and a mountain of administrative details, not to mention the many personal needs of individuals and families. But no amount of change can obscure this truth. Spiritual leaders must focus their efforts on the Word of God and prayer. They must fiercely resist attempts to divert them to other worthy causes.
We must not let the good crowd out the best or allow the urgent to push the important off the agenda. No one can do everything -spiritual leaders must commit themselves to their primary work of ministering the Word and spending time in prayer.
Step 2: Making a Plan v. 3, 4
I believe every word I just said, but it’s only part of the story. It’s good for the apostles to be high-minded about their calling, but we’ve got a group of hungry widows on our hands. What about them? If they aren’t fed, they won’t be in any mood to listen to the apostles as they minister the Word. We still need a plan to handle this problem.
Begins with congregational involvement: “Brothers, choose 7 men from among you.” Continues with a statement of qualifications: “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Commitment to definite delegation: “We will turn this responsibility over to them.” Restatement of priorities: “and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
Wise approach to the problem. Rather than issuing an edict from on high, they ask the congregation to choose the men who will serve the widows. The statement of personal qualifications shows that they wanted 7 spiritually-mature men who would have the respect of the church. Those men could attack the problem as they wished while the apostles focused on their primary calling. All in all, an excellent way to handle a touchy situation.
Step 3: Finding the Right People v. 5
“This proposal pleased the whole group.” Here is a list of the 7 men 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.” All the names are Greek names - chosen from the Greek-speaking section of the church. These men no doubt knew the widows personally, would have the trust of all the Greek-speaking believers, and would know how to handle any problems that might arise.
Step 4: Commissioning the Workers v. 6
Final step in the process. After the congregation selected the 7 men, they were presented to the apostles, who laid their hands on them and prayed for them. This final step is important because it puts the full weight of the 12 apostles behind the 7 men. It ensures that the Greek-speaking widows will know that they aren’t being pushed in a corner and that their concerns have been taken seriously. It also sends a message to the congregation that this problem has been dealt with and that the apostles truly want to see the Greek-speaking widows fed every day.
3. The Result v. 7
End of this little episode from the early church. There is new receptivity to the message: “So the word of God spread.” There are many new converts: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem spread rapidly.” There are conversions in high places: “And a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” By God’s grace an interruption that threatened danger became an opportunity for further growth. What are we to learn from this? Let’s wrap up this message by considering 4 truths for today.
A. The importance of proper priorities in the Lord’s work
The apostles understood their calling from the Lord, which is why they refused to personally get involved in feeding the widows. What seems harsh and uncaring was best for all concerned. Sometimes leaders must say “no” to the good in order to say “yes” to the best. The church starves spiritually when leaders focus on anything other than the Word of God and prayer. In every organization a thousand pressures constantly pull us away from our core concerns. In God’s work we must constantly build everything upon the Word of God and prayer. When we do that, other concerns can be addressed and handled. When we forget that, the entire church suffers.
B. Impossible for a few people to do all the work in the church
The apostles couldn’t do their work and feed the widows too. The same is true in every church today. No pastor can do it all. Oh, I know there are a few super talented individuals who can do 9 things at once and do them all well. But in the local church there are hundreds of things that need to be done, and therefore hundreds of willing hands are needed.
Here at WPBC I can preach and teach and prepare and work with the elders and lead the staff and meet with people and pray for the hurting and visit the sick and attend some meetings and answer questions and take phone calls and dream for the future and do a few other things that don’t come to mind right now. I stay busy but no matter how hard I work, I can’t preach and do Discipleland at the same time. I certainly don’t want to play the piano. You should thank God that you don’t have to listen to me sing a solo.
1 Corinthians 12 - about the variety of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. God never intended that one man—or one group of men—or any group of men and women—do all the work in the local church. I’m not saying this because of any problems here. WPBC is the most gracious, non-demanding church I’ve been in. The congregation gives me and the other staff members enormous freedom to do our work. My point is that no matter how hard we work, we can’t do everything that needs to be done. We can’t do it all because God never intended the church to work that way.
C. The blessing of many people using their gifts in many ways
This is the flip side of what I’ve just said. In the beginning the widows were going hungry and their friends are upset. Anger threatens the unity of the body. By the end the anger is gone and the widows are fed because the 7 men are now serving the Lord and are recognized by the whole congregation. This is precisely how the body of Christ is supposed to function.
Let this sentence sink into your mind: No one does everything but everyone does something. That’s God’s plan for the local church. Some do more, others less, but everyone does something.
D. The value of serving through practical deeds of kindness
Most believe that the first deacons were elected in Acts 6. The Greek word for deacon (diakonos) means servant. The verb means “to wait on tables.” Deacons and deaconesses “wait on tables” by ministering to others through practical deeds of kindness. They roll up their sleeves and get busy helping people in a variety of ways.
Let’s be clear on one point. The apostles would have been out of God’s will to wait on tables; the 7 men chosen by the congregation were in God’s will when they did what the apostles wouldn’t do. They obeyed God’s will by serving the widows just as much as the apostles obeyed God’s will when they ministered the Word of God. It’s not an either-or proposition. We need leaders who will devote themselves to the Word of God and to prayer, and we need deacons who will serve the widows. Both are absolutely necessary for the church to function properly.
The most precious commodity anyone has is time. Sometimes we’d rather write a cheque than get involved personally. Yet God is calling us to give our most precious commodity by taking time to become a friend to those in need and witnessing God’s love to them.
“Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Dr. King was right. Not everyone can be great in the eyes of the world, not everyone can be rich or famous. But anyone can be great because serving others is within the reach of everyone in the church. You’ll never be more like Jesus than when you serve someone else.
 

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