FINDING OUR PLACE OF SERVICE

 

Week of July 8, 2007

 

Bible Verses:  Acts 6:1-7; 9:36-40; 11:29-30.

 

Biblical Truth: God calls each of us to use the gifts and skills He gives us to serve the body of Christ.

 

We can serve in different Ways:  Acts 6:1-7.

 

[1]  Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. [2]  So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. [3]  Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. [4]  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” [5]  The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. [6]  And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. [7]  The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.  [NASU]

 

[1] The Problem. The situation is clear. On the one hand, the number of disciples were increasing. On the other, the excitement of church growth was tempered by a regrettable complaint or murmuring on behalf of the Hellenistic Jews who thought that their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food [1]. The church had accepted the responsibility of caring for the widows and a daily distribution of food was made to them. There were two groups in the Jerusalem church: Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. The difference between the two groups were probably one of culture as well as language. The Hellenistic Jews thought and behaved like Greeks, while the Hebrew Jews spoke Aramaic and were deeply immersed in Hebrew culture. It is not suggested that the oversight was deliberate. More probably the cause was poor administration or supervision. The apostles recognized that this problem was threatening to occupy all their time and so inhibit them from the work which Christ had specifically entrusted to them, namely preaching and teaching.

 

[2-6] The Solution. The apostles did not impose a solution on the church, however, but summoned the congregation together in order to share the problem with them. There is no hint whatever that the apostles regarded social work as inferior to pastoral work, or beneath their dignity. It was entirely a question of calling. They had no liberty to be distracted from their own priority task. So they made a proposal to the church [3-4]. It is noteworthy that now the Twelve have added prayer to preaching (probably meaning public as well as private intercession) in specifying the essence of the apostles’ ministry. They form a natural couple, since the ministry of the word, without prayer that the Spirit will water the seed, is unlikely to bear fruit. This delegation of social welfare to the Seven is commonly thought to have been the origin of the diaconate. But the Seven are not actually called deacons. The statement found approval with the whole congregation [5]. The church selected seven men and presented them to the apostles who commissioned them by prayer and the laying on of their hands.

 

The Principle. A vital principle is illustrated in this incident, which is of urgent importance to the church today. It is that God calls all His people to ministry, that He calls different people to different ministries, and that those called to prayer and the ministry of the word must on no account allow themselves to be distracted from their priorities. It is surely deliberate that the work of the Twelve and the work of the Seven are alike called ‘ministry’ or ‘service’ (diakonia [1,4]). The former is the ministry of the word [4], the latter to serve tables [2]. Neither ministry is superior to the other. On the contrary, both are Christian ministries, that is, ways of serving God and His people. Both require spiritual people, full of the Spirit and of wisdom [3], to exercise them. And both can be full-time Christian ministries. The only difference between them lies in the form the ministry takes, requiring different gifts and different callings.

 

We do a great disservice to the church whenever we refer to the pastorate as ‘the ministry’, for example when we speak of ordination in terms of ‘entering the ministry’. This use of the definite article implies that the ordained pastorate is the only ministry there is. But ministry (diakonia) is a generic word for service; it lacks specificity until a descriptive adjective is added, whether ‘pastoral’, ‘social’, ‘teaching’, ‘administrative’ or another. All Christians without exception, being followers of Him who did not come to be served, but to serve [Matt. 20:28], are themselves called to ministry, indeed to give their lives in ministry. But the expression ‘full-time Christian ministry’ is not to be restricted to church work and missionary service; it can also be exercised in government, the media, the professions, business, industry and the home. We need to recover this vision of the wide diversity of ministries to which God calls His people. In particular, it is vital for the health and growth of the church that pastors and people in the local congregation learn this lesson. True, pastors are not apostles, for the apostles were given authority to formulate and teach the gospel, while pastors are responsible to expound the message which the apostles have bequeathed to us in the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is a real ministry of the word to which pastors are called to dedicate their life.

 

The apostles were not too busy for ministry, but preoccupied with the wrong ministry. So are many pastors. Instead of concentrating on the ministry of the word, they become overwhelmed with administration. The consequences are disastrous. The standards of preaching and teaching decline, since the pastor has little time to study or pray. And the lay people do not exercise their God-given roles, since the pastor does everything himself. For both reasons the congregation is inhibited from growing into maturity in Christ. What is needed is the basic, biblical recognition that God calls different men and women to different ministries. Then the people will ensure that their pastor is set free from unnecessary administration, in order to give himself to the ministry of the word, and the pastor will ensure that the people discover their gifts and develop ministries appropriate to them.

 

[7]  The Result. As a direct result of the action of the apostles in delegating the social work, in order to concentrate on their pastoral priority, the word of God kept on spreading. The word cannot spread when the ministry of the word in neglected. Conversely, when pastors devote themselves to the word, it spreads. Then, as a further result, the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. The two verbs spreading and increase are in the imperfect tense, indicating that both the spread of the word and the growth of the church were continuous. This verse is the first of six summaries of growth, with which Luke intersperses his narrative. They come at crucial points in his unfolding story [see 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31].

 

We can serve through our Skills:  Acts 9:36-40.

 

[36]  Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas); this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did. [37]  And it happened at that time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid it in an upper room. [38]  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him, “Do not delay in coming to us.” [39]  So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. [40]  But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. [NASU]

 

In Joppa there lived a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas (the Aramaic and Greek words respectively for a gazelle), whom Luke describes as a disciple … abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did [36]. In particular, she seems to have made both undergarments and outer clothing for the needy [39]. It seems that, by the way in which he recorded the miracle which then took place, Luke deliberately portrayed Peter as an authentic apostle of Jesus Christ, who performed the signs of a true apostle [2 Cor. 12:12]. Four factors support this suggestion. First, the miracle followed the example of Jesus. The raising of Tabitha recalls the raising of Jairus’ daughter [Mark 5:35-43]. Because the people were weeping noisily, Peter sent them all out of the room, just as Jesus had done. Further, the words spoken to Tabitha were almost identical to Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter. Secondly, the miracle was performed by the power of Jesus. Peter knew that he could not overcome disease and death by his own authority or power. So he did not attempt to do so. Instead, while addressing the dead Tabitha, Peter knelt down and prayed [40], a detail that must have come from Peter, since nobody else was present. Thirdly, the miracle was a sign of the salvation of Jesus. Because of his confidence in the power of Christ, Peter dared to address the dead woman with the word of command: Arise. This is the same verb used of God raising Jesus, which can hardly have been an accident. This is not to forget that Tabitha was resuscitated to her old life (only to die again), whereas Jesus was resurrected to a new life (never to die again). It is rather to point out that resuscitation from death was a visible sign of that new life into which by the power of the resurrection we sinners are raised. Fourthly, the miracle redounded to the glory of Jesus. When Tabitha was restored to life, it became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord [42]. In accordance with the purpose of the signs, which was to authenticate and illustrate the salvation message of the apostles, people heard the word, saw the signs, and believed.

 

We can serve through Giving:  Acts 11:29-30.

 

[29]  And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. [30]  And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.  [NASU]

 

Barnabas and Saul, having ministered as evangelists and teachers, were now glad to minister as social workers by bringing the offering to the poor in Jerusalem. This second visit of Saul’s to Jerusalem seems to be the same as the second visit which Paul himself mentions in Galatians 2:1-10. The parallels are striking. He writes there that he traveled with Barnabas, that he went in response to a revelation, and that the leaders urged him to continue to remember the poor, which was the very thing he was eager to do, namely in bringing the famine relief. It was now the turn of the Antiochene believers to be generous. They gave in the proportion that any of the disciples had means [see 2 Cor. 8:3], just as the Jerusalem believers had previously distributed as anyone might have need [Acts 2:45; 4:35].

 

The following biblical principles are set forth here: ability on the one hand, need on the other, and how to relate them to each other. These principles should characterize the family of God. This brotherhood or family included both Jewish and Gentile believers, and the fellowship between them was illustrated in the relations between their two churches. The church of Jerusalem had sent Barnabas to Antioch; now the church of Antioch sent Barnabas, with Saul, back to Jerusalem. This famine relief anticipated the collection which Paul was later to organize, in which the affluent Greek churches of Macedonia and Achaia contributed to the needs of the impoverished churches of Judea. Its importance to Paul was that it was a symbol of Gentile-Jewish solidarity in Christ, for if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things [Rom. 15:27].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.      In 6:1-7, what is the Problem, the Solution, the Principle and the Result that we find in these verses?

 

2.      What do you think about John Stott’s comments on the true understanding of ministry? Do you consider yourself in “full-time Christian ministry”? Why does Stott say: “it is vital for the health and growth of the church that pastors and people in the local congregation learn this lesson”?

 

3.      What can you do in your local church to enable and encourage your pastor to devote his time and energy to the ministry of the Word?

 

4.      What biblical principles concerning giving can we learn from 11:29-30?

 

 

References:

The Book of the Acts, F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.