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Acts

Growing Strong Through Dispute

Acts  6:1-10

Mention the thought of a church fight to most leaders today and they will cringe. It seems obvious that such a thing will inevitably weaken the church. But consider the early church: it is not obviously the case at all. The early church was actually strengthened by the prompt handling of a just complaint.

(Acts 6:1-10 NIV) 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. {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 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." {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. {7} So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. {8} Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. {9} Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, {10} but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.

The Dispute Itself

Before we can see the handling of the dispute, we must understand a little more of the times.

The character of the dispute

·         First, the dispute is not about the entire distribution of food. In these times there were two collections made to support the widows. These were taken from the customs of the Jewish synagogues. One, called “the basket, was a weekly collection designed to afford two meals a day for a week for all the widows who could not provide for themselves (a common case). The other, called “the tray,” was collected daily for those who were sick or in other need. It is this latter collection which is in dispute.

·         Note that there is an air of race (or today, nationality) to the complaint. It would be easy to dismiss the complaint as being one unique to Greeks – “and you know how those Greeks are.”

·         Finally, despite the racial aspect, the complaint evidently was justified. Just because the minority is complaining does not make it false.

Comparison: Ananias

We’ve already seen one area of trouble in the church: Ananias and Sapphira. In that case God dealt with the individuals. But in this case it is difficult to place the blame upon any single person. It just “sort of happens.” You can imagine that this was something which was overlooked in the rapid growth of the church.

Hence, as the church as a whole was responsible, the church must act. It’s a very different situation – and much more like our own troubles in churches today.

Resolution: take it to the Apostles

For those who are fervent believers in church theocracy, or those who fervently espouse church democracy, there is something for you here.

·         The theocrat will like the idea that the complaint was made to the church leadership – the Apostles. They’re in charge, let them fix it.

·         Their solution: “you choose.” They lay out the qualifications for the men in question, and leave it to the church body as a whole to produce the solution.

The Solution

Replying to the complaint

If there is any one thing that is striking about the men whom the church selected, it is this: they are all Greeks. One of them is even a Greek convert to Judaism, and then to Christ. This is indeed good:

·         The Greeks complained; now they have the means of solution within their power. What a great way to end dissension!

·         It also is illustrating the “servant nature” of the church. The ones who are to be honored are the ones who serve; you rise to the top in the church by being the servant of all – in imitation of the Christ, the Servant King.

·         It goes beyond the Apostle’s requirements. They said nothing about all of them being Greek; so the church replies with something stronger than asked.

·         It therefore implies to the Greeks that they are full and trusted members of the church – because these Greeks will be feeding the widows of the entire congregation.

Qualifications for a waiter

So, what does it take to be a waiter in God’s kingdom?

·         First, they must be men. Later on we will see deaconesses (the title here is transliterated deacon), but for now it is men. Why? I suspect it is so that the people around them will not murmur and complain – an adjustment to the times.

·         Secondly, they must be believers. There is no thought of “hired hands.” This is an interesting thought, because it shows clearly that the feeding of the hungry was considered to be a spiritual duty, not just an expedient. There is no thought of turning this over to a caterer.

·         The men must be of good reputation. The church is a hospital for sinners – as such, those who are providing the care must be beyond reproach. Doctors, not quacks, so that the hospital will be sought out.

·         They must be “full of the Spirit.” This may seem an odd qualification to pass out food. But they were not “just” passing out food. They were doing God’s work, and therefore must be filled with His Spirit.

·         Finally, they are to be filled with wisdom. Wisdom has many definitions; I submit there is a practical one here. To be the recipient of charity is painful to the pride. To be the bearer of charity may mean that you will have need of handling that injured pride. For such an assignment, you will need wisdom.

Sending out the deacons

Ritual, even at this stage of church development, is important.

·         The Apostles send them out with prayer. They trust nothing to men alone, but rather send them out with God’s guidance and blessing.

·         They lay hands on them. To a Jew of this time, the gesture would be instantly obvious. The priest laid hands upon the sacrificial animal before the sacrifice. It is a form of identification; it says, “We are with you in this, we will support you in this – for you are doing this on our behalf. We cannot participate physically, but we are with you.”

The Effect on the Church

The Apostles’ attitude

It’s important to remember that the Apostles declined this work so that they could do things which were required of them. We need to see three things about their attitude:

·         First, it is not a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Each of us has gifts of the Spirit, and the gestures used in sending out show how important they thing the work might be.

·         Next, the issue is not one of their choosing – the Spirit does this.

·         But note one thing: they act speedily. They don’t wait and see if this will develop into a problem; they act.

Layers of power

There is a key mistake which is often made in the church. It says, “Let us focus on the practical work of the church. Our prime task should be feeding the hungry (or whatever).” By placing focus on works, we will soon see our congregation drying up. Power proceeds from within:

·         The innermost layer, unseen but by God, is prayer. To this the Apostles dedicate themselves, and by the power of prayer the church is moved. I’ve never seen the gasoline exploding in the cylinders of my car – but I know what it is to run out of gas. Prayer is the hidden fuel of the church.

·         Next comes the “spiritual” work – preaching the Gospel. Many complain that this is no longer relevant. It is not so. If the Gospel is not preached, the impulse to common charity will soon become an exercise in condescension.

·         At the outer edge are the works of the church. When powered by prayer and layered above the Word these are great works indeed. When attempted by man’s own impulses, they will soon dry up.

Results

It’s interesting that the Bible records no fat widows from this distribution. Rather, these are the results of resolving the issue and maintaining the unity of the church:

·         The Word increased – there were more chances for the Word of God to be heard. I suspect that the charity and care of the church left many an opening.

·         The number of disciples increased as well – sow the seed, the crop will come.

·         Interestingly, many of the priests became Christians. This is interesting because these are the religious experts – who should have been most satisfied with their spiritual lives. It is hard to convert a rich man, especially when he is rich in spirit. The only way is to show him the pearl of great price.

·         One of the deacons, Stephen, is given the power to work miracles. More than that, he ends up speaking boldly for the Gospel.

·         The test of the true church: resistance from the world. Note that those who dispute with Stephen are also Greek Jews. It seems the Gospel has spread to another element of the culture around, and it is meeting with Satan’s furious resistance.

Christ prayed that we might be one, even as he and the Father were one. We see here how the resolution of a just complaint united the church – and the results that this gave.

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