What’s this Story About?
This morning, we’re considering a story that is quite brief—just seven verses, here at the beginning of Acts 6. This is the passage that many point to as the beginning of the diaconate—one of the offices in the church. If you read 1 Timothy 3, you’ll see that Paul instructs a pastor named Timothy concerning the qualifications for two offices in the church—the elder, and then the deacon. You could also look at the beginning of Philippians, where Paul addresses his letter “to the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, with the overseers [another word for “elder”] and deacons”. So, Philippians was written to the church in Philippi, and Paul specifically singles out the officers of that church—the elders and the deacons.
This story, which we’re looking at this morning, is often referred to as the beginning of that office—the deacons. I personally am not sure if the apostles in our story were thinking that they were starting a new office, here in Acts 6, although I think it’s fair to say that this was the beginning of that office.
But if I’m going to be honest—I think I would be distracting us from the real meat and potatoes of this passage if I preached a sermon on the diaconate. We’ll certainly see some immediate application and descriptions of the diaconate in this story, but I don’t think this story was included in Acts 6 in order to say, “now this is how the diaconate became an office of the New Testament church”. There’s no statement like that in this story. In fact, the seven who were chosen to “serve tables” (verse 2), or to fulfill “this duty/business” (verse 3) are never called “deacons” in our passage. In fact, later on in Acts, one of the men who was chosen—specifically, Philip—begins to do some serious work of evangelism. We usually understand deacons to be committed to hands-on ministry, whereas elders and pastors—perhaps evangelists—are committed to word-based ministry (they preach the word and pray). We’ll see that distinction later on this morning.
But Philip, who was one of the seven chosen in our passage, does serious word-based evangelism in chapter 8, and in chapter 21 (verse 8) he is described as “Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven”. In other words, this Philip had a word-based, elder-like, evangelistic ministry—yet, he was “one of the seven” who was ordained by the laying on of hands into the ministry of waiting on tables. He’s never called a deacon—just, “one of the seven”. He is deacon, by our standards. He is an evangelist. Yet, this suggests to me that Acts isn’t telling us this story in Acts 6 to give us the origins of the deaconate. If we read it like that, I think we’ll be missing something much bigger.
So, what is it? If this story isn’t ultimately about the diaconate, then what should be our main focus this morning? There’s a hint. Again—seven verses this morning. Two of them—the first one, and the last one, give us a hint because they reiterate the same thing. Verse 1, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number…”, stop there. The disciples of Jesus Christ is increasing, his church is growing. Then, the last verse we read this morning (verse 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”. The church is growing. The church is growing. The church is growing. That’s what’s being reiterated, and we’re supposed to ask—“how?”, and “against what odds?”.
How were they growing—and, against what odds? Remember where we started in Acts. Jesus, their leader, ascends to heaven and leaves his 11 disciples waiting with 120 other disciples. They have to choose the 12th disciple because the other guy was a traitor. This was the group that Jesus originally commissioned to take over the world with his gospel—a motley crew. At Pentecost, they were accused of being drunk. When Peter and John were on trial for the first time, they were literally perceived as “uneducated, common men” (4:13)—literally, the word is idiotes, “idiots”, if you will. By the time we get to our passage in chapter 6, the leaders of this group (the apostles) have already been on trial twice and beaten once. In chapter 5, we see that this group is susceptible to lies within its own membership—perhaps even rivalry, as Ananias and Sapphira sought to publicly appear more pious and generous than they really were.
Yet still, against all these odds, the church grew. After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, we read chapter 2 verse 41, “there were added that day about three thousand souls”. Then six verses later (2:47), “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Then after Jesus healed the lame man at the temple gate, in chapter 4 verse 4, “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand”—those are just the men, by the way. That’s how the gospels and acts often counts groups of people. If you count women and children, I have to wonder if we’re actually talking about 10 thousand or more.
Then, after the terrifying situation with Ananias and Sapphira, we learn in chapter 5 verse 14 that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” This is when the apostles were arrested a second time, and the council charges them in chapter 5 verse 28, “we strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching”. Jerusalem is filled with this Jesus stuff, now—and it’s being received! Then, there’s the two verses in our passage—chapter 6 verse 1, and verse 7: “the disciples were increasing in number”, and “the word of God continued to increase…”.
The Spirit of the risen Jesus was upon the apostles, filling them with a boldness and a razor-sharp focus that could not be distracted or thwarted. We talked about that boldness last week—nothing could distract them from proclaiming the kingdom, and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’s name. And, Jesus empowered them with overwhelming success.
So, verse 1 and verse 7 of our passage might make us consider that this story is calling us to wonder at the growth of this church—and how it might be growing despite various threats.
There are a few threats against the church in today’s passage. They’re real threats against the church that we should consider, even now. We’re going to walk through this in three steps this morning, generally speaking. First, we’ll consider the threats against the church, that makes its growth all the more compelling and awesome. We’ll spend most of our time there this morning. Then, we’ll consider the solution, and the result. So again—
1. The threats to the church’s growth
2. The solution to that threat
3. The result
The Threats to the Church’s Growth
So, what is the threat to the church in this passage, that makes it’s growth so astounding that we need to hear about it twice in these seven chapters?
Rapid and Unsustainable Growth
First, the rapid growth itself was something of an administrative disaster waiting to happen. Perhaps you have seen churches or institutions grow extremely fast, only to collapse equally fast. Economists and business experts warn against “unsustainable rapid growth”. In churches today, this often happens with celebrity pastors. A pastor who is extremely well loved attracts hundreds or thousands, and suddenly there’s a need for different programs, new buildings, multi-site campuses, and so forth. The only other option is to turn people away, and limit your membership at a sustainable number. (I only know of one well-known pastor to do this, by the way.) Either way—when the pastor retires or gets into trouble, the whole thing collapses. That’s not to mention the drama and challenges involved during the rapid growth. So, simply based on common trends even today, the rapid growth itself was a variable—a potential threat—to the church’s sustainable ministry.
The Administrative Threat
That’s what I think was behind the administrative problem that we see in our story. Verse 1 says that “when the disciples were increasing in number”—here’s the problem, given the increase in number—“a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution”. A more literal translation, there, would say that “their widows were being neglected in the daily diakonia (i.e., the daily ministry).” So, we’re talking about a daily ministry, and we know it’s a ministry that’s being done over tables. Verse 2 tells us that when the apostles say “it’s not right for us to give up preaching, to serve—or, to diakonia—tables.” Was food being given, or money, or clothes? We don’t know. I’m guessing a bit of everything. Either way, the church grew so large and quickly that this ministry became an administrative haste.
This really was an amazing movement. It wasn’t a church movement where people just got excited about a preacher on Sunday morning. People were excited about Jesus every day of the week, and they were meeting together every day to minister to one another. This daily fellowship and ministry over tables has been mentioned already in Acts. Remember the description of the church immediately after Pentecost, chapter 2 verse 46, “day by day [they were] attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts”. People were giving and receiving from one another every day. I imagine this may have started as a very informal, spontaneous work of the Spirit in the hearts of these believers. It’s possible that other Jewish customs were involved—customs these Jewish Christians were already used to. That’s why they attended the temple together. It’s the religious life they knew. John MacArthur mentions that the Jews had a system of daily alms and distribution, in order that the poor and vulnerable would regularly be cared for. The Jews didn’t count on Rome to care for their vulnerable—they did it themselves. I think this is all a part of what’s going on, here, in these early Jewish Christians. That’s part of why they may have been so quick to start their own ministry of alms giving, so to speak.
Now in all this the church grew, and the less organized and more spontaneous ministry of the Spirit needed to get organized. The Hellenists’—or Greeks’—widows were being neglected while the Hebrew widows were cared for. It must have been quite noticeable. However, I don’t think it was malicious. Some have suggested that the Hebrews were intentionally marginalizing the Greeks. I think it’s possible, but not likely given the way that this situation was handled. As we’ll see, this was handled as an administrative problem rather than a sin problem. There is no evidence that the Hebrews were sinfully marginalizing the Greeks in this passage. The church was growing fast, and there was an administrative oversight.
By the way, you may be wondering about the distinction between the Hellenist Christians and the Hebrew Christians in this passage. There are a number of views on this—and, I don’t want to bore you with all the technical arguments. In a word, the early church at this point was comprised of two groups, just like the Jewish people was comprised of two groups. Remember—at this time, the church is comprised mostly of Jewish Christians, because the church hasn’t moved out of Jerusalem yet. So there were Greek—or Hellenistic—Jews, and there were Hebrew Jews. Years before Christ came, the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman empire, and the diaspora—or dispersed—Jews quickly accommodated the Greek language and culture as they worshipped in synagogues all over the Roman empire. We learned from Pentecost that many Greek Jews were in Jerusalem when the church was born because they were attending the Pentecost festival. I imagine, after becoming a Christian, these Greek Jews stuck around with their Christian brothers and sisters. That’s what’s going on with these Hellenistic Christians in Jerusalem in this passage. The Hebrew Jews, of course, were the Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, and they were culturally Jewish because they lived in Jerusalem.
So, this isn’t a matter of Greek blood versus Jewish blood, necessarily. It’s more cultural and linguistic. One pastor (James White) suggested that it’s quite possible the Hellenistic widows were neglected from the daily distribution because they couldn’t speak the language of the Hebrews. If you’ve ever been in a restaurant in a foreign country, you know that speaking up isn’t easy. I think this is possible, but we really don’t know. The point is—there was an administrative problem at play here, given the rapid growth, and it’s possible that factions were beginning to grow between the Greeks and Hebrews.
The Threat of Grumbling
Now, this verse does remind us that administrative problems can lead into sin problems. Verse one says that “a complaint by the Hellenists arose”—and, the word there could be translated “grumbling”, or a “murmuring”. I actually love the word, in the Greek. It's Gongusmos. I think it's supposed to be an onomatopoeia for how we sound the we're fussing. Pastor James White picks up on it and says that the hellenists were gungosmooing. What a good word for grumbling and complaining. “Are you gungosmooing?” “Yes, I’m gungosmooing”.
The Israelites in the desert were gungosmooing when Moses had a similar administrative problem on his hand. The people of Israel grew fast in Israel, God redeemed them from Egypt and brought them to a desert where they complained. That complaining was rendered sinful, and it didn’t lead to anything good for the people of Israel.
Here, the complaining was a potential threat to the unity and peace of the church (just like it’s a threat in any church). Notice that it was murmuring against the Hebrews. It wasn’t murmuring against the apostles or other leaders, but against the Hebrews. Perhaps the Greeks were tempted to think, “those Hebrew elitists are always so stuck up and full of themselves, looking down on us Greeks”. Given that the situation was indeed resolved swiftly and administratively, I think it’s fair to say that the apostles pulled the reigns in on this one before deep bitterness took root.
That’s a good lesson for us, by the way. If you notice a grievance between you and another believer, take care of it swiftly before bitterness takes root. Remember, we give our bitterness to Jesus—he’s purchased forgiveness in the fellowship, with his blood! This could be handled mostly by administration because Jesus’s blood covered the sin of murmuring that had begun to take root. His blood made it possible for this threat to be quickly averted. The sooner you handle problems like that, the easier the fix will be. Thankfully, in Christ, it’s never too late. Paul even had high hopes for the deeply divided and conflict church of Corinth. If you’ve ever read 1 Corinthians, you know what I mean. That church had serious factions and divisions, and Paul offered practical wisdom, instruction, and hope because the gospel offers deep solutions to deep problems.
So, the threat against the church and her growth in this story involves (1) her rapid growth (that only God could sustain, by the way) (2) administrative oversight, and (3) the sort of complaining that led Israelites into sin back in the desert.
The Threat of a Church without Mercy
More than this, however, we would do well to consider that this administrative oversight was a threat to the church’s ministry because it really did involve a vital part of the church’s ministry. Many administrative oversights aren’t going to destroy a church. Some will, if it involves neglecting a vital part of the church’s ministry. This one did—it involved ministry to the poor and marginalized.
Jesus made a big deal out of helping the poor and oppressed. Remember the story of the good Samaritan? Or, what about the golden rule, which Jesus got from Leviticus 19:9–8? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. How about Jesus’s words to the rich young ruler—“go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus used this law of loving the poor as a test on this prideful man who thought he kept the law. Only, he didn’t love God more than his possessions.
In the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, God makes a really big deal out of loving and caring for the disadvantaged and poor in Israel. In the passages we read from Deuteronomy this morning, we saw that God ensured in his law that the widows and orphans in his land would be well cared for. Harvesters were essentially commanded to not strip their harvest bare, so that the helpless in Israel might have a part of the harvest. There was also an additional tithe every third year in Israel, to help the helpless. In Deuteronomy 10:17–19, God reminds us that we are to love the poor and disadvantaged because we ourselves were that before he saved us into his grace. That passage says, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were [disadvantaged, enslaved] sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
He loves the poor, so we should love the poor. He delivers the poor out of their misery, so we should. He glorifies himself by loving the poor, so we should glorify him by loving the poor. It is in his love for the poor and disadvantaged that he saved you, Christian. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” with forgiveness, fellowship with God, peace, joy, and unimaginable hope. Of course, this altogether glorifies God, our great benefactor.
So, we’re called to love the poor and disadvantaged. God loves them as he glorifies himself through them. It’s a very fitting ministry that adorns gospel ministry with God’s mercy. The apostles didn’t respond to the Hellenist’s grumbling simply because they wanted the grumbling to stop. They needed the generosity and ministry to continue! It’d be a terrible black mark on the church—a terrible witness to bounties of Christ’s kingdom and his gospel—if widows in the church were left without help.
Widows in that culture really were disadvantaged—losing your husband meant losing all sorts of protections, provisions, and economic securities. The fact that the apostles actually appointed seven men, and laid hands on them, ought to demonstrate how important this visible demonstration of God’s love is for the church’s ministry. The church has a responsibility to these kinds of people. When we consider those final observations for our deacons, we’ll consider some more practical wisdom about what that might look like.
Now, we’ve seen a number of ways this whole situation could be a threat to the church’s ministry and growth. The administrative oversight that led to grumbling, and the general failure to love the widows as we’re called to do. Both of those could be fatal problems in a church’s ministry and growth. But, there’s one more threat that this situation presents us with. That’s the threat of distraction.
The Threat of Distraction
You see that alluded to in verse 2 when the twelve summon 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.” In other words—“I can’t have this administrative problem distracting us from what God has called us to—the ministry of the word”. In verse 4, they say “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word”. It would have been so easy for the disciples to distract themselves in this. Only, they knew God appointed them to the ministry of prayer and the word. I love what John Stott says about this, as he takes the previous few chapters we’ve looked at into account as well—
[Satan’s] strategy [against the early church] was carefully developed. He attacked on three fronts. His first and crudest tactic was physical violence; he tried to crush the church by persecution. His second and more cunning assault was moral corruption or compromise. Having failed to destroy the church from outside, he attempted through Ananias and Sapphira to insinuate evil into its interior life, and so ruin the Christian fellowship. His third and most subtle ploy was distraction. He sought to deflect the apostles from their priority responsibilities of prayer and preaching by preoccupying them with social administration, which was not their calling. If he had been successful in this, an untaught church would have been exposed to every wind of false doctrine.
It would have been so easy for the apostles to distract themselves, and busy themselves with this ministry of the daily distribution. The ministry of the word and preaching is hard work—it means that you’re receiving the enemy’s opposition right there, on the frontlines of battle. More than this, the apostles likely felt a heavy responsibility for the growth and health of the church. Many poor leaders who don’t have the ability to delegate tasks will try to juggle everything themselves, and the whole system totters down on their shoulders. The apostles were wise enough to recognize the church must be built upon the pillars of two kinds of ministries—word ministry, and deed ministry. Peter makes this generic distinction in 1 Peter 4:11 when he says concerning spiritual gifts and callings in the church— “whoever speaks, [speak] as one who speaks the oracles of God; whoever serves, [serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.”
Why didn’t the apostles get distracted, and busy themselves with the tables? They were apostles, entrusted with a ministry of two things—word, and prayer. That’s it. That’s their focus—anything more than that, and they’ll be divided, spread thin, and their boldness will quickly become watered-down and distracted. It’s a mercy to the church that God has divided up her ministries this way, so that elders can focus on the word, and deacons may focus on their ministry. Pray diligently that our elders and deacons don’t get distracted, and that they keep a razor-sharp focus on their task. It will serve us all, and keep certain kinds of complaining out of our fellowship.
You see a strong call to focused ministry, when Paul gives a charge to an elder named Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:1. You can hear the urgency and gravity at stake—
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, … 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions… 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
In other words—"People will be distracted from the word—but you, Timothy, will not be distracted. People will get itching ears for the next self-help trend—but you, Timothy, will must give them the word in fresh and compelling ways, to show them the supremacy of Christ.”
So, we’ve considered the various threats against the church’s growth, which we read about in verses 1 and 7 of our passage. Despite the rapid growth, the administrative oversight, the grumbling, and satan’s scheme to distract the disciples from their preaching, the apostles were able to quickly come up with a solution.
Let’s briefly consider the solution that they came up with—and what sort of result came out of all this.
In verse 3, the apostles say “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.”
So, there you have it. We’ve talked about this a fair amount already—the solution was to have the church choose seven men, and have them appointed (or “ordained”) into this duty. I simply want to point out two quick matters, here.
First, notice the way the apostles implemented this solution. They had the congregation choose the seven, and after the apostles approved their choice, verse 6 says that the apostles “prayed and laid their hands on them”. So, the apostles didn’t pick the seven on their own. The whole church was involved. You all just went through the process of choosing a new pastor—and hopefully, this passage reassures you that you approached it in a very Biblical way. You picked the guy, and presented him before the elders of our presbytery, who then ordained him into this ministry. We do the same thing with deacons. The church affirms a man, the elders confirm and ordain him. This passage is one passage we might go to in order to explain our presbyterian way of ordaining officers. That’s the first, more tangential matter I wanted you to see, here.
The second matter to see in the apostle’s solution to their problem is perhaps more pressing. I think it serves well to highlight the importance of the diaconate ministry.
Why do the apostles think that this task of waiting tables needs to be elevated to some sacred task, conducted by men who hold a sacred office? Again—verse 6 says that “they prayed and laid their hands on them”—that’s designating a special—perhaps sacred—Spirit-appointed calling in the church. We’re talking about managing tables and distributing goods. These men aren’t assuming a spiritual authority over a flock, like elders are. They aren’t handling God’s “eternal word” like elders do in their teaching and preaching. Couldn’t the apostles have simply said “choose some gifted administrators to handle this problem”. Why the sacred appointment in verse 6?
The sacred appointment demonstrates to us the importance of the diaconate ministry, as it is designed to function as gospel ministry alongside the elders’ ministry of the word. The gospel, and Christ’s kingdom on earth, is supposed to have real, felt, tangible impact. The deaconate ensures that the church isn’t just all talk. A beautiful, gospel sermon by Reverend Peder Kling would only be a show of judgment upon our church if we neglected to take care of our own. It reminds me of James’ words in James 2:14–17,
Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith [i.e., a robust faith that’s bolstered by strong, Reformed preaching every week] but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
This is true for the individual, but also for the church. A church with doctrine, but without works, isn’t going to last. I fear for any church that might have strong teachers, but no active diaconate. It’s bad for the fellowship. It’s bad for the church’s witness and reputation in the community. It’s bad for the honor of Christ’s name. Without the diaconate, you’ll hear inside the church murmuring just like the Israelites did in the wilderness, or like the Hellenists did in our story. More than this—without the diaconate, you’ll hear outside the church murmuring because “that church is all about doctrine, and it has no love and service.”. The apostles saw how important the diaconate ministry was, so they ordained men into the task. This is a crucial ministry for the gospel in Christ’s kingdom.
We’ve seen the multiple threats against the church’s mission, and the apostle’s solution. Now, the consider the result in verse 7.
Verse 7—“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great number of the priests became obedient to the faith”.
When the diaconate was established and took care of the disadvantaged, the word of God increased. The murmuring stopped, the apostles were able to continue preaching, and the provisions to the needy bore witness to the love at work in Christ’s kingdom. We need to see that. In fact—here’s a quick word for the deacons—I fully expect that the deacons ensured that their deaconate ministry was gospel ministry. They likely adorned their service with the gospel—these weren’t silent men. Deacons don’t get excused from the general responsibility of all Christians to declare Jesus’s salvation. In the next chapter, Steven preaches a sermon and gets killed for it. Then, Philip in chapter 8. While deacons aren’t called to be preachers, they are called to serve in Christ’s name, for the gospel. Steven did it to his death. The result of this early deaconate was gospel ministry.
Interestingly, verse 7 says that “a great number of the priests became obedient to the faith”. Why is that detail mentioned? The only reason I can think of—and that others have pointed out—is that priests in Jerusalem had a huge responsibility in Jerusalem to care for the poor. It’s quite possible that a number of priests saw how well the Christians took care of their poor, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They could help but believe in Jesus when they heard the word, and when they saw the well-coordinated ministry and generosity in the church.
The result of the diaconate ministry not only involves our own people being cared for, but it also involves a powerful witness to our community. We’ve seen the threat to the church’s ministry, the apostle’s solution, and the result of their solution.