In this essay we continue our study of Acts 2:1-8:1a, which is a record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem prior to their witness in Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). I also have characterized the section as a series of firsts for the Church. Last Sunday we studied 5:12-42, in which Luke recorded the first persecution of the Church.
In this essay we are studying Acts 6:1-7 in which we shall see the first formal organization of the Church. Verse one sets forth the situation. On the one hand, disciples were increasing in number. Although the NRSV and NIV translations hide it, the Greek says that the number of disciples multiplied. Up until now the word “add” has been used. That is to say, the Church has been described up to this point in Acts as adding disciples, but now they were multiplying them. This fact meant that the leadership had more and more people to care for.
The “Hellenists” were Greek speaking Jews who culturally thought and behaved like Greeks. The “Hebrews” of course spoke Aramaic and were immersed in Hebrew culture. Therefore what we see in this complaint is a natural spilling over into Church life of some tensions that existed in Jewish life at large.
Of course widows were not the only Christians in the community who were poor, but the complaints were focused on the widows. Young widows were a very real problem in the Roman Empire as a whole. There was no welfare system such as we have in our country today to support poor widows. If they did not have relatives who were willing to support them, many of them, especially younger ones, had to turn to prostitution to earn enough income to support themselves and their children.
The early church recognized this problem and set a solution in place. They arranged to support the widows from the treasury of the Church. But that decision caused administrative difficulties. Some from the Hellenistic faction of the community were dissatisfied with the way the distribution of food was handled. They believed that their widows were being discriminated against in the distribution.
The solution to this administrative problem was simple enough; and it resulted in the first formal organization of the church. Seven deacons were elected to take care of this work. But the remarkable thing about it is that all seven have Greek names. What better way to deal with the complaints of the Hellenists in this matter than to put them in charge of it!
Now there are a couple of other points to be made here. First, the Greek word that is translated “distribution” is diakonia. And the verb translated “to serve tables” is the verb from of the same word. The word also means “ministry” or “service.” The English word “deacon” comes from this same root. Therefore many would say that these seven men were the first deacons in Church history.
But notice another important factor. There were three qualifications required for appointment to this administrative work: 1) they were to be people “of good standing,” meaning of good reputation; 2) they were to be “full of the Spirit,” meaning the Holy Spirit, and 3), they were to be filled with practical “wisdom.” In other words, they wanted persons of high Christian character.
Then in verse four the ministry of the apostles is contrasted with that of the deacons. It is a “ministry of the word.” It is a diakonia of the word. That is, they concentrated their attention on preaching and teaching the word of God, while the deacons were appointed to carry the administrative load. Both groups were in ministry, but the focus of their ministries differed.
Although some may interpret this verse to say that the ministry of the word (pastoral work) is superior to the ministry of waiting on tables (social work), there actually is no hint of that here. It is strictly a matter of calling. The reason the apostles did not want to wait on tables was because they were not called by God to do that. And every hour they gave to administrative work, was an hour they could not give to preaching, teaching and prayer. Notice in verse four that the apostles considered prayer to be part of their pastoral calling.
In verse five we see that the whole community saw the wisdom of assigning work according to one’s calling. And so they accepted the proposal and picked seven men who are named. Nothing more is known about five of the seven. That doesn’t mean that they led insignificant Christian lives. Nothing much is know about the work of some of the Twelve either. The book of Acts later informs us of significant actions by Stephen and Philip. Those actions demonstrate that both men were gifted in areas of service beyond the administrative work to which they were originally assigned.
Now I believe the process we see here also is significant. Notice in verse six that the community elected these deacons, and the apostles commissioned them by laying on of hands and prayer. Thus, although the call to ministry comes from God; and we must respect the witness of a person who believes him or herself called by God, nevertheless the community of faith has a role in the calling process. That is to say, the call comes both from God and the community. If the community does not confirm that the individual has the gifts and graces for ministry, then God probably did not call that person.
Verse seven indicates the fruitfulness of the community’s decision. When God’s people are working within the framework of God’s will, the work prospers. Notice that Luke believed it significant to mention that many priests were becoming believers. That was significant. The priests were Sadducees, and Sadducees held a very liberal theology, including a lack of belief in resurrection. However Josephus, the great Jewish historian, tells us that there were as many as 20,000 priests in Jerusalem. Luke’s point was that the gospel made inroads even into the ranks of the Jewish priesthood.