Church growth can be difficult. Where do we put all these people? How can they connect with others? How can we ensure they’re being cared for and shepherded? Where did they come from? If this growth doesn’t bring with it a growth in maturity, then the difficulty is that much more exacerbated.

Thankfully, we have an example of how the church in Jerusalem handled their growing pains. Let’s see what we can learn from Acts 6:1–7 with some help from the Teach the Text Commentary Series.

The Teach the Text Commentary Series is specifically designed to help those responsible for communicating the text of Scripture effectively. The series “gives pastors the best of biblical scholarship and presents the information needed to move seamlessly from the meaning of the text to its effective communication.” Keep reading below for an example of the content you can expect in this great series.

The Appointment of the Seven

Big Idea

The Holy Spirit resolves dissension in the church as its leaders act to restore unity that is essential to its growth.

Key Themes

  • No one is to be overlooked as unimportant, and all are to be cared for in the church fellowship.
  • Those who are chosen to be leaders should understand themselves to be servants of the community.
  • The preaching and teaching ministry is not limited to the Twelve. Others, led by the Spirit and attested by the church, can preach and teach as well.

Understanding the Text

The Text in Context

This unit begins and ends with an emphasis on the church’s growth. The verb “increase” appears at the beginning in 6:1 and at the end in 6:7. The increased membership brings new problems. Luke has emphasized the togetherness as a crucial aspect of the community’s life from the beginning (2:42–47). One can assume that he presents it as a model for his readers to emulate. The enormous response to the apostles’ preaching means that the growing church no longer consists of those who came from the same area, socioeconomic background, and linguistic heritage. The Hellenistic Jews from the Diaspora spoke only Greek and did not know Hebrew or Aramaic. The church’s togetherness comes under threat. The tightly knit group is beginning to show signs of unraveling.

This clash, under God’s providence, leads to the transfer of authority to new figures who will play a significant role in the growth of the church’s mission. The solution for maintaining the church’s unity by commissioning Hellenist deacons to assist the apostles provides an impetus to the gentile mission. This passage serves as preparation for the story to move to the next stages in the narrative. The mission moves from Jerusalem to the mission into Samaria and into the gentile people.

Interpretive Insights

Acts 6:1–4

The Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Luke portrays widows as particularly prone to be destitute and defenseless (Luke 2:36–38; 7:11–17; 18:1–8; 21:1–4). They along with orphans and resident aliens belong to a group that God commands receive special protection (Deut. 16:11; Mal. 3:5). Hellenistic widows were likely to be doubly in need of support, cut off from their former kinship networks or family members who may have rebuffed them when they became believers. Goods are laid at the feet of the apostles for distribution to those in the community who are in need. The church’s joyful unity and generous sharing of resources are temporarily interrupted when murmurings arise over inequities in the assistance of Hellenistic widows.

Luke does not explain why or how they were overlooked. It is unlikely that it was rooted in theological differences or prejudice over cultural differences. The apostles are not so preoccupied with teaching and preaching that they ignore widows (9:36–43). But they need additional help to carry out all of their tasks (cf. Exod. 18:13–23; Deut. 1:9–18) and to minister to an increasingly diverse people.

The apostles take action to redress the concerns (6:2–4). Believers are “disciples” for the first time in Acts so that the term expands beyond those who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Luke does not intend to imply that waiting on tables was beneath the Twelve (cf. Luke 22:26–27). He emphasizes that the apostles were specifically called to the ministry of preaching and teaching (1:8) and to underscore the vital importance of that task.

Acts 6:5–7

The church body, not the apostles, chooses these men, discerning that they are full of the Spirit and wisdom (6:5–6). The number “seven” has no special significance here and serves only as a round number (cf. Josh. 6:4; Esther 1:14; Jer. 52:25). Their names reveal that they were Hellenists. Ostensibly, they were chosen to serve tables, but Stephen and Philip are singled out in the narrative to follow for playing a key role in the next stage of the church’s expansion. Nicolas is identified as a proselyte, a convert to Judaism, which prepares the way for those who were not born Jews to join the church.

The laying on of hands in this context is not a formal rite of ordination into an office but a commissioning for a task. The Greek text could imply that the apostles or the whole group laid hands on the men. It did not transfer apostolic power so much as publicly ratify the choice of these men and confer on them the apostles’ blessing.

The Greek verb for “increased” (6:7) also appears in 6:1, and its usage enfolds this account and reveals its emphasis. “The word of God” is a dynamic power that grows of its own accord. The gospel’s growth is no longer due solely to the preaching of Peter and John and the other apostles; the seven men and many others, who remain anonymous, extend its impact.

The “priests” who become believers are not the Sadducean priests, who belong to the wealthy aristocracy that violently opposes the movement. They come from the large number of poorer priests, like Zechariah (Luke 1:5–23), who lived in the area.

Theological Insights

The church cannot be allowed to break up into different caucuses. If the problem resulted from discrimination, the church learns to be tolerant of cultural differences. If the problem resulted from a language barrier, the church addresses it through setting up a stronger administration of the charity (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3–16).

Teaching the Text

1. All People are Welcome.

All who believe in Christ receive unconditional acceptance in the fellowship of believers. The earliest church experienced growth problems, and Luke describes the leaders quickly taking action to find solutions. It is easy to ignore those who speak a different language and come from a different culture. These differences create communication difficulties. That compounds the problem if they worship in a different setting. This incident reveals how the Christian community is sensitive to the danger of creating second-class members who may be out of sight and therefore out of mind. The church solves this problem through prayer and the Spirit-led discernment of the entire fellowship.

The apostles recognize that they cannot meet all the demands on their time and energy. They understand that successful ministry requires a team effort and a division of labor. An effective, principled infrastructure is vital to the spread of the gospel. Some appeal to this account in services related to the ordination of deacons. The noun “deacon” (diakonos) does not occur in the text, only the cognate noun “service” (diakonia), which is translated as “distribution” (6:1), and the cognate verb “serving” (diakoneō), which is translated as “wait on” (6:2). The task did not have a “formal name” and was not a formal office. Their authority and spiritual power reside not in official titles or offices but in their effective ministry to others. They also are servants not of the church members but of Jesus Christ who serve others in obedience to him.

2. Delegating Authority to other People

The apostles convey authority to other significant leaders in the church. The church body as a whole chose these men, and the apostles laid hands on them to bless them for this ministry. A similar commissioning occurs in the church at Antioch. The church, with no apostles present, chose men already involved in prophecy and teaching and proven in their ministry. They “placed their hands on them and sent them off” to new fields of mission (13:1–3). Their apostolic power springs from the Holy Spirit, not from human institutions, however sanctified they might be.

The men are singled out for being “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3), but the church does not have a spiritual Geiger counter to detect these vital attributes. Churches can gain spiritual discernment in choosing leaders only through prayer, worshiping together, and observing persons in action.

3. Preaching the Word and Serving the People

Luke contrasts serving the word of God with waiting on tables, but he does not intend to create a dichotomy between preaching the word and caring for the poor. Luke emphasizes that the church feeds the hungry and takes care of the needs of the poor, but it does not do this to the exclusion of preaching the gospel. Good preaching cannot stand alone; it also requires good administration and good shepherding, such as caring for widows. Likewise, social ministry cannot stand alone.

In the narrative that follows, two of the appointed seven, Stephen and Philip, do exactly what the apostles do: they devote themselves to the ministry of the word (6:4). They evangelize, not wait on tables. Service to the poor in helping with the daily distribution does not rule out preaching to others. Having the gift of speaking does not exclude one from also having the gift of service, and vice versa. From what follows in the narrative in Acts, it is clear that Stephen also had a powerful gift of speaking. The manifold gifts that God gives to individuals in the church gave rise to the development of specialized responsibilities and positions in the church, and the goal is solely to bring glory to God.

The Hellenists are an interesting force in the movement of the gospel. They were fully aware of God’s presence and power outside the nationalistic confines of the temple and Jerusalem. They were possibly more liberal in their approaches to mission as the first to break through the boundaries that had been erected between Jews and other people. In doing so, they received the greatest hostility. With fewer local ties to shield them, their fellow Jews hounded them.

Illustrating the Text

Dealing with conflict between people is part of leadership.

Most ministers are ready for success and growth, but few are prepared for breakdown and opposition. No matter how successful a ministry is, the minister will have to deal with conflict and division at one time or another. A. W. Tozer advises, “Church difficulties are spiritual also and admit of a spiritual answer. Whatever may be wrong in the life of any church may be cleared up by recognizing the quality of the trouble and dealing with it at the root. Prayer, humility and a generous application of the Spirit of Christ will cure just about any disease in the body of believers.”

Empowering those closest to a problem often provides the best solution.

Dennis Bakke is a former CEO who advocates for egalitarian structures in the workplace that encourage worker autonomy and allow for collective self-supervision. He observes, “There is an intrinsic organizational assumption that mistakes or problems could be avoided if high-ranking people made all the decisions. But more often than not, lower-ranking people are closer to the problem and better positioned to come up with a solution, especially if they seek advice from their colleagues”

There are no unimportant people in the church.

In his sermon, “No Little People, No Little Places,” Francis Schaeffer uses Moses’s staff as an eloquent metaphor for what every life can be. He describes Moses carrying this six-foot piece of wood around with him in the wilderness, the most mundane and taken-for-granted possession that he had. Yet when Moses, standing before the burning bush, wondered how in the world he would be able to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go, God asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exod. 4:2). For the rest of his life, Moses’s simple staff was simultaneously God’s staff.

Schaeffer concludes: “Consider the mighty ways in which God used a dead stick of wood. . . . Though we people are limited and weak in talent, physical energy, and psychological strength, we are not less than a stick of wood. But as the rod of Moses had to become the rod of God, so that which is me must become the me of God. Then I can become useful in God’s hands. The Scripture emphasizes that much can come from little if the little is truly consecrated to God. There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense, but only consecrated and unconsecrated people. The problem for each of us is applying this truth to ourselves.”

Future leaders always begin as faithful servants.

Hudson Taylor was summoned to visit the home of an impoverished family. He was faced with a poor man who had a sick wife and six small children, including an infant who was only two days old. The father was desperate, and he was disappointed by the lack of help from God and from this man of God. Later, the father approached Taylor again, begging for help, “If you can help us, for God’s sake, do!” God convicted Taylor to surrender his last coin to save this family. Years later, he reflected that this one experience helped him to be a great leader even during times of great trial. He confesses, “If we are faithful to GOD in little things, we shall gain experience and strength that will be helpful to us in the more serious trials of life.”

The Teach the Text Commentary Series from Baker Publishing

This excerpt shows how valuable a resource like the Teach the Text Commentary Series is for those charged with preaching and teaching the Word of God. Follow the link below to learn more about this series and to see which volumes are available.

Write A Comment