By Dr. Mark Scott
Seth Wilson said, “I don’t know about being ‘called,’ but I know we’ve all been ‘sent.’” All Christians have been commissioned to witness (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Disciples have been called out of the world only to be sent back into it. Darin Brown from the Journey’s Crossing Church in Germantown, Maryland, said, “You got into the ministry when you got out of the baptistery.”
God may have called judges to save Israel (June’s lessons), and he may have called prophets to correct Israel (July’s lessons), but he has called his entire church to bear witness to his glory. The lessons for August will all come from the book of witness of the early church—Acts.
The Witness Derailed
God poured out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the church was off and running (Acts 3–5). The 12 became 120, that became 3,000, then 5,000, then multitudes, and some estimate that by Acts 6 the church could have been 20,000 strong. But where two or three are gathered together, problems develop. There arose a complaint (murmuring, like Israel did in the wilderness; many of us have heard that at church). The problem that threatened to derail the church’s witness here in Acts was ethnic, economic, pastoral, and perhaps even political.
It matters little whether the widows being neglected (overlooked) was reality or was perceived as prejudice. The complaint was reality. Hellenistic Jews (those Jews who had been influenced by Greek language and culture) felt overlooked in the “meals on wheels” program of the church. Did the Hebraic Jews get special treatment or extra food? (Side note: This complaint would never have arisen had the church not taken its ministry to widows seriously; that is a compliment to their service [1 Timothy 5:3-16; James 1:27].)
This issue might seem puny compared to other issues in Acts (such as the resurrection of Jesus or the missionary enterprise of the church). But actually treating all people with dignity, overcoming prejudice and racism, and taking good care of one another all lay at the heart of the gospel. The problem in our text is that this was derailing the specific ministry of the apostles. It was not that waiting on tables was below the ministry of the apostles; it was just that Jesus had called them to pray and preach. Others could be selected to use their spiritual giftedness to take care of this benevolent need. The church always has to relearn this lesson.
So the Twelve called a church meeting (perhaps just a portion of the large church) to devise a plan. First, they admitted reality—their ministry was being neglected. Second, they set forth qualifications for those to whom this responsibility could be delegated. Third, they empowered those selected to do the job. Praying and preaching (the ministry of the word of God) took time, and not just anyone was chosen to serve—only those who were qualified (full of the Spirit and wisdom). Were these the first deacons of the early church? Perhaps. But maybe this text is a template on how to solve potential problems that derail the witness of the church more than a rigid blueprint on how to select church leaders.
The Witness Ensured
There are few things as wonderful as a happy church. This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose (elected) seven men. One might ask, “If twelve apostles cannot take care of this demanding ministry, how can seven non-apostles handle this?” But that misses the point. Seven is a number of completeness, and there seems to be some evidence that this followed the Jewish practice of appointing seven men to handle any issue that arose for a community. All the names are Greek names (with the possible exception of Philip). The wisdom of this can be easily seen. Jewish men who had been “Hellenized” would be sure to take care of “their” people. The apostles affirmed the decision of the church and empowered the seven with prayer and ordination (laying on of hands, symbolizing the commissioning of the men to this task).
The result of such a decisive act and harmonious method ensured the ongoing witness of the gospel. The Word of God spread to such an extent that even priests (Sadducees) became believers. The witness and wonder-working ministries of two of the seven men selected will be featured in the following chapters: Stephen (Acts 6, 7) and Philip (Acts 8). God has called the church to witness, and nothing should derail that.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.