St Barnabas & St Michael, 18th May 2014
Church Growth (Acts 6:1-7)
When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.
(John F. Kennedy 1959)
In the first verse of our reading from Acts 6, we realise that there is a crisis looming … but before we look at that in any detail, and at how the early church handled the situation, lets look first at the context because the other thing we see in 6:1 is that the church is growing.
In those days … the number of disciples was increasing
That growth however, wasn’t simply about numbers … though by this time the church in Jerusalem numbered several thousand men plus women and children (Acts 4:4), meeting in homes all over the city and gathering together regularly at the temple. That growth also refers to growth in spiritual maturity because Acts 6:1 is the first time in Acts the believers are called disciples.
We’re used to that word in the gospels, referring both to the twelve men that Jesus chose to be his apostles or messengers, and to those among the crowd who believed in him. But Luke, the author of Acts, is careful with his words, and he wants us to recognise that these people are not now just those who are part of the crowd, but those who are committed to following Jesus and learning more about him … the word disciple is the word student or pupil … one who learns or studies. These people haven’t gathered simply hoping to see a miracle or a good argument with the temple authorities. These people are committed to living for Jesus, and are fully aware that that might be at the cost of family, friends and lifestyle.
So the church is growing. But where did that growth come from? How did it come about? Let’s look back for a moment at the preceding chapters.
On the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that, Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:41)
The disciples spent a lot of time together, sharing their possessions and ensuring that no-one was in any need, And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47b)
In Acts 3, Peter performs a miracle that leads to Peter and John being called before the Temple authorities (Acts 4) who command them not to speak of Jesus again. Peter and John reply, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
In Acts 5 we read about the death of Ananias and Sapphira, in judgement for their pretence – a very practical demonstration of the importance God places on his people living a holy life.
But the miracles and signs continue, and even though the people are now afraid, still more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Acts 5:14)
The Temple authorities were angry and jealous, so the persecution begins, and the apostles are put in jail. But God releases them and commands them to continue, so once again they go to the Temple to preach and teach … resulting in yet another trial. This time they were beaten and flogged before being released, but look at the end of Acts 5, just before our reading today, v41,42 …
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 5:41-42)
The growth of the church at that time was phenomenal, despite increasing opposition. The believers lived together, shared everything together, prayed and praised together, in their homes and at the Temple. They saw God work in acts of power, transforming lives. They also saw God’s judgement of sin in action … so their faith was rooted in the reality of sin and forgiveness. And they recognised that even persecution was a sign of God’s presence and favour.
So in Acts 6:1 Luke calls the believers disciples for the first time … those who were committed to following Jesus, to being together and to living for him in every area of their lives.
But now a situation arises that threatens everything … not opposition, or persecution, or sin … but a simple disagreement about favouritism …
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. (Acts 6:1)
The church was growing among Jews of many different backgrounds. The Hebraic Jews were those who had been born and lived in Israel and Hebrew was their first language. The Grecian Jews were those who, for whatever reason, had grown up elsewhere in the Roman Empire. They were faithful Jews, but their first language was Greek, not Hebrew.
Jews from around the Empire not only visited Jerusalem on pilgrimage to worship at the Temple, but many moved in their old age to spend their last days in the city of God. They were often elderly, and relied on the Temple for support … it was the welfare state of their day.
But it seems that many among them came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah they had hoped would come, the Christ … so they too became part of the church. And they looked to the church to support them … naturally, since the believers – as we have seen before – shared their material wealth so that no-one was in need.
The church developed a system of supporting those in need with a daily food distribution … and tension arose because of a perceived inequality in the way those of different backgrounds were being treated.
… the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1)
It was such a little thing really – but it had the potential to cause so much damage. Because the one thing that stands out about the early church, in the face of opposition, of persecution, of growth and of need, is their unity. Jesus said,
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:35
But now the Grecian Jews felt that those among them who were needy were being discriminated against by the Hebraic Jews. A minor issue, perhaps, but it revealed a deeper problem … there was division among the disciples.
Division undermined everything, threatening their witness and the continuing growth of the church.
But notice that no-one made a mountain out of a molehill … the Apostles didn’t blame or criticise anyone, they simply pointed out the problem and offered a practical solution.
First of all, they sorted out their priorities, It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables (Acts 6:2)
There’s something here you need to see. The Apostles weren’t saying that they were too important to wait on tables … the words in our English translation, ‘ministry‘ and ‘wait (on tables)’ is, in Greek, the same word, serve or service. The Apostles understood that those who serve at table are as much part of the ministry of the church as they were … only they had different gifts and different roles.
Those different gifts and roles serve the same purpose … but practical service at tables alone is not enough … the Apostles could of course have joined the hospitality team but they recognised that to neglect the ministry of the wordwas wrong.
To respond to human need by loving service is right and good and faithful, but it needs to happen alongside an explanation of the gospel, God’s plan to rescue people for all eternity, not just in the here and now. So everyone agreed that the Apostles should focus on praying and the ministry of the word while others took on the more practical roles, all of them together working to share the love of God with those around them.
So the Apostles offered a suggestion … 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. The solution was both practical and spiritual … those appointed to oversee the distribution of food had to have a mature Christian faith and not simply practical skills. That’s because everything we do as a church speaks of Jesus … whether it’s an upfront role; leading, preaching or visiting; or a practical role, cutting the grass, keeping the accounts, making the tea. The person pouring the tea and chatting across the counter has as much input into the life of the church as the preacher. The one cutting the grass gets to talk to passers by that the vicar will never encounter. These practical roles have an impact and we should never underestimate their importance.
This proposal pleased the whole group (v5) … the church recognised wisdom when they heard it. Notice that the Apostles step back and take no part in the actual choosing of the seven … they are chosen by the church, and are then brought to the Apostles who commission and pray for them. Unity is restored as they make this decision together …
Surprisingly, all the names chosen are Greek, one of them even from a Gentile background (Nicholas from Antioch). Those who had complained, who felt left out and slighted are welcomed and reassured by this simple act of generous grace.
And although these men were designated a practical role of service to the community, the church gained a new generation of leaders … we know that at least two of them, Stephen and Philip went on to other ministries.
It is important then, that as a church we encourage each other to grow in faith, to be disciples, students, that we all seek to grow in knowledge and understanding of God to serve in any role, no matter how insignificant it might appear.
So the church continued to grow … the word of God spread (v7) … rapidly! Not only among the people, but for the first time we read that a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. The opposition is crumbling. By this stage, Christians numbered at least a quarter of the total population of the city.
Alongside that growth however, came increasing opposition and violent persecution from those who refused to believe … Stephen’s story is that he became the first martyr (see Acts 7), yet God used the persecution to spread his gospel out into the wider Roman Empire, as both Jews and Christian were scattered as a result.
So this simple, little story of a minor disagreement and a practical solution teaches us a lot about how to live as a church. We may not be living in a time and place of rapid growth … and there’s no guarantee that if we do things a certain way growth will come. But we can be disciples, seeking to live closer to God at every opportunity, to share the Good News with those we meet, to demonstrate the values of God’s kingdom in the way we live together.
- growth of the church (Acts 4:4)
- judgement of sin (Act 5:1-11)
- miracles, healings, acts of power (Acts 5:12f)
- persecution (Acts 5:17f)
- Complications (Acts 6:1)
- growth created need – influx of immigrant Greek-speaking Jews
- division between Grecian and Hellenic Jewish believers
- complaints about inequality
- Constructive solutions
- priorities established – prayer and the ministry of the word
- practical and spiritual – full of faith and the Holy Spirit
- united in agreement – this pleased the whole group
- generous and gracious – all seven names are Greek
- new leaders – Stephen and Philip
- continued growth (including priests) and further persecution (Acts 6:8)