Servants of God Acts 6:1-7

There is a question which folk who are new to our church will sometimes ask. Why is it that Baptist Churches are led by a Minister and this group of people called Deacons? Church of England Churches and Roman Catholic Churches have their Bishops and Priests and Vicars. Methodists and United Reformed Churches and Pentecostal Churches are all run in different ways by groups of people with a variety of titles. Why do Baptist Churches have Ministers and Deacons? This morning will go some way to answering that question.
Things were going wonderfully well for the first Christians. We read in Acts 4 that the Early Church had grown to include at least 5000 men. That actually means at least 5000 families! And we read in Acts 5 of more and more people becoming Christians so by the time of Acts 6 those first Christians in Jerusalem probably numbered at least 20,000 men women and children. That is one big church, as big as any church today but without the benefits of mass communication or phones or even microphones and speakers or any kind of PA system!
The Early church was led by The Twelve. They were the Eleven Apostles led by Peter James and John who Jesus had chosen to be with him and learn from him, to pass on his teaching and continue his mission. Above all they were the people who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection. Then in Acts 1 we read how the Early Church had chosen Matthias to be a Twelfth apostle to replace Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Those Twelve apostles were the leaders of the church. We read a few weeks ago how the first Christians looked after each other.
Acts 4 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
So rich Christians were selling their possessions to care for the poor. And here in Acts 6 we read about the first food bank! Every day the first Christians were distributing food to the poor widows. But even in the midst of this wonderful generosity a problem developed.
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.
This was probably still in the first year since the birth of the church when the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. The Apostles were still leading the church in a very hands-on kind of way. People were still giving money directly to the apostles for them then to distribute it to the poor.
Last week at Haven Café we were delighted to welcome two separate couples who came in clutching their vouchers for a free drink. They all seemed very happy to be with us and expressed their intention to return. As one couple was going out of the door reading our literature I heard the wife expressing great surprise, “The waiter was the Vicar!”
Perhaps there was occasionally a similar expression of surprise from some of the widows in the Early Church. “You know who served me my dinner today? It was the apostle John!”
But here was the problem. Sorting out practical problems such as who would receive what food parcels was getting in the way of what the Apostles had been commissioned by Jesus to do. It was NOT that the Apostles considered that task beneath them. It was THEIR feet that Jesus had washed in the Upper Room. They all knew that the greatest in the Kingdom of God was the servant of all. But they also knew that Jesus had called them to teach and preach and lead the church in a way that only they could possibly do. Other people could sort out the distribution of food. So the Apostles initiated the earliest example we see of organisation or structure in the Early Church.
2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait (diakoneo) on tables. 3 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Prayer and the ministry of the word – those would be the focus of the Apostles’ energies. Others would “wait on tables.” The word there is to serve, in Greek, diakoneo, from which we get the English word, to be Deacons. Those who served God and the people in the practicalities of the daily food distribution. In essence, Seven people who were given the job of organising and running the Early Church.
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So here we have “the Seven.” The Twelve apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, and seven people were set apart by the Apostles and by the whole church to serve and organise the church – the first Deacons.
Filling out the story, as the Early Church in Jerusalem grew we find later in Acts another kind of church leader emerging, called Elders. Jewish congregations were led by Elders and the first Christians followed the same pattern. In Jerusalem the Christian Elders worked alongside the Twelve and although they were not themselves apostles it seems that a group of Elders shared the work of the apostles. In Acts 15 we read that the church in Jerusalem at that time was led by a Council made up of Apostles and Elders. All the Christians everywhere looked to that Council in Jerusalem for guidance and leadership because it included those of the Twelve Apostles who had not as yet been martyred. It seems that the Elders like the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the Word of God, preaching and teaching, while Deacons continued to be responsible for the practical details of the common life of the church.
The Early Church grew and spread. Some years later the apostle Paul took the gospel all around the Roman on his missionary journeys. And wherever he planted churches, Paul would appoint Elders to lead and take care of the church when he moved on.
Acts 14 21 They preached the good news in that city (Derbe) and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
We read in Paul’s letter to Titus that this pattern of Elders leading the church had become the pattern for churches everywhere.
Titus 1 5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
Paul then gives instructions on the qualifications for becoming an Elder.
6 An elder (presbuteros) must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer (episkopos) is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
Paul uses two words here. One is Elder, and the English word we get from that is “Presbyter”. The other word is “overseer” and that is often translated “Bishop.” It seems to me that here and in other places that Elder and Overseer refer to the same person because it is the job of the Elder to oversee the life of the church. In particular the Elders were continuing the Apostles’ focus on the Word of God and in teaching the truths of the faith.
1 Timothy 5 17 The elders (presbuteroi) who direct (proistemi) the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
Set apart for prayer and the ministry of the word. Teaching and preaching. That role continues in the church today in the position of the Minister. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul spells out the requirements for anybody who might consider becoming an Elder or Overseer and these would very much apply to anybody offering to become a Minister today.
1 Timothy 3 Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, (episcope) he desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
Notice that Paul is much more concerned about character than he is about gifts or skills or abilities of Elders or Ministers. And then in the same passage Paul goes on to talk about the requirements for being a Deacon.
1 Timothy 3 8 Deacons (diakonos), likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. … 12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
So it seems clear that by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy towards the end of his life churches everywhere were being led by two groups of people. There were the successors to the Twelve Apostles, the Elders or Overseers, who carried on the work of preaching and teaching, focussed on prayer and the ministry of the word and setting the direction for each church. And there were the equivalent of the Seven, the Deacons, serving the church by taking responsibility for all the practical matters. And in Baptist Churches today we still call those who take responsibility for the church premises and finances and activities with that New Testament name of Deacons.
Although their responsibilities were different, the requirements for becoming a Deacon were no less demanding and no less spiritual than the requirements for Elders. Remember the choosing of the Seven.
3 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
These first Deacons were men who were known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. It was no less spiritual to be a Deacon than it was to be an apostle. Deacons organising the distribution of food parcels needed to be just as full of the Spirit and of wisdom as the apostles did devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. Because here is the thing. The root word for what both these groups of people were doing was the same. The word for ministry and the word for servant are the same word. “Serving at tables” is the same word as “the ministry of the word” – serving the Word.
We find that same word “Service” in an important passage in Ephesians and there it is applied to all Christians.
Ephesians 4 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. … 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
This passage talks about “works of service.” Other translations use the phrase “works of ministry.” Here we have exactly the same word as we found in Acts 6. For some it is serving at tables. For some it is “serving the word.” Works of service, works of ministry. Anything any Christian does serving God in the church and in the world. Paul explains that it is not the case that God has put apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers into His Church to do all those works of Christian service or “works of ministry.” God provides church leaders such as pastor-teachers, who we would call ministers, to prepare all God’s people so that we all can do works of service and works of ministry. That is how the church is built up, as EVERY Christian plays their part and does the work God calls them to do.
So in Baptist Churches we have ministers – serving the word. We also have Deacons – serving at Tables. But we don’t leave all the work of the church to the Minister and the Deacons. Every Christian has a part to play in outreach and evangelism and pastoral care and prayer and discipleship.
And whatever any Christian is doing for God, whatever job any of us might have in the church, we are all simply servants. Serving at tables or serving the word – we all need to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and we are all simply servants, servants of God, servants of Christ, Servants of the Church.
So let us learn How to serve, And in our lives Enthrone Him;
Each other’s needs To prefer, For it is Christ We’re serving.
This is our God, The Servant King, He calls us now To follow Him,
To bring our lives As a daily offering Of worship to The Servant King.

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