A Place to Serve
February 14, 1999
“Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Those are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They remind us of the words of Jesus who declared that he did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). On the night before he was crucified, when the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he took a towel and basin and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. By that one simple gesture he showed forever what sort of man he was and what sort of people we should be. He came to serve, and in his bloody death on the cross he served all humanity. Was Jesus great? The question hardly needs answering. He was great because he was God’s servant.
Dr. King is right. Greatness is open to all because anyone can be a servant. We generally don’t realize this until a crisis comes. Most of the time we rock along contentedly, knowing that someone else will do the serving. That’s why we elect presidents and prime ministers, why we call pastors and hire department heads. Serving is fine with us as long as someone else does most of the work.
Then a crisis comes and we begin to see things differently. I am told that the Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two word-symbols – one meaning “danger” and the other “opportunity.” That’s what a crisis is: a danger and an opportunity rolled up together.
How a Crisis Became an Opportunity
Our text tells the story of a sudden and unexpected controversy that threatened to rip apart the early church. How it was handled and how the crisis became an opportunity makes for a fascinating story. As I study these verses I am struck by the way the passage begins and ends. Verse 1 tells us the crisis happened as the number of disciples was increasing. Verse 7 informs us that the Word of God spread rapidly as many people believed and many priests became obedient to the faith. Instead of derailing the church, this crisis propelled it to even faster growth. Surely this is a mark of God’s hand of blessing. Even the bad things work out for good.
What happens in Acts 6 takes place at the end of a period of severe persecution, from which the church emerged stronger than ever. Acts 4 tells us it was a time of unusual spiritual unity and sharing of possessions. And it happened during a period of amazing spiritual harvest. This should not surprise us. Satan often attacks at the moment when things are finally going well. David Wilkerson calls this unplanned interruption a “Satanic conspiracy” to divert the church from its God-appointed mission.
In seven brief verses Luke describes the problem, the solution, and the very positive result. When we get to the end, we discover that more people are serving the Lord, more people are being won to Christ, and the unity of the church has been restored.
I. The Problem 1
“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” (Acts 6:1).
This is the first case of racial prejudice in the Christian church. It comes about primarily because the church has grown so fast that it has outstripped its leadership base. In the early days the apostles and their helpers could easily care for everyone in the congregation. As thousands joined the growing movement, it was inevitable that some people (or groups of people) would fall through the cracks.
The problem stemmed from the fact that although the early church was entirely Jewish, it was made up of two different groups of Jews. The Hebraic Jews were Jewish-Christian converts who spoke Hebrew (or more probably Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew) as their main language. They had been born and raised in Israel, were native to the land, knew the customs of the synagogue intimately, and brought their extensive culture with them when they entered the church. By contrast the Grecian Jews were Jewish-Christian converts who spoke Greek because they had been born and raised outside Israel. They might have come from Cappadocia, Galatia, Pontus, Macedonia, Crete, Italy, or any other part of the Roman Empire. When they came to Christ, they brought their Greek-speaking culture with them. This means they probably looked a bit different and certainly acted and sounded different from the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians.
This was a recipe for trouble. As long as things were going well, the differences could be ignored. However, the Jerusalem church was never rich, and eventually there were problems in the daily distribution of food for the widows from the two groups. The Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christian widows were being favored over the Greek-speaking Jewish Christian widows. I think (although I can’t prove it) that here we have a simple case of the “hometown girls” being favored—consciously or unconsciously. After all, the Hebrew-speaking widows were from Israel, and perhaps had grown up in or near Jerusalem. They were well-known and had many connections. It’s a natural human impulse to “take care of your own” in times of trouble or shortage. Perhaps it wasn’t being done intentionally, but nevertheless one group of widows was being favored over another group.
I think it’s easy for us to dismiss this as a fairly minor problem. It wasn’t. If you were a Greek-speaking widow in the Jerusalem church, it was a big deal because you weren’t being fed. And when the widows weren’t being fed, their friends got up in arms. So what might not matter to us looks more serious if the women involved happen to be personal friends. This is a serious problem that demanded careful attention. Churches routinely split over issues much less important than this.
I said earlier that this is the first case of racial prejudice in the church. If someone objects that this is not true racial prejudice, I reply that treating people differently because of their culture, ethnic heritage, or the language they speak is where racial prejudice usually begins. Some years ago Billy Graham was asked what one problem he would solve if he had the power. He answered that if he could, he would bring an end to racial prejudice and the hatred that afflicts so many people on this planet.
So how should the church tackle a problem like this? If it were us, we would appoint a Food Distribution Task Force to study the matter and report to the elders. Or we might call a prayer meeting. Or we might have a business meeting and hash it out (or shout it out). Maybe we would end up starting a new church – The Jewish-Christian Greek-speaking church of Jerusalem #1. Maybe we’d start a two-lunch program – the “traditional” Hebrew-speaking lunch at 11:30 AM and the “contemporary” Greek-speaking lunch at 1 PM. If you put the matter in those terms, it certainly seems very relevant for us today.
II. The Solution 2-6
Verses 2-6 tell us how the early church confronted this difficult issue. The solution involves a four-step process.
Step 1: Setting Priorities 2
First, there was an immediate response. “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together.” Second, there was a clear statement of priorities. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Whenever I read those words, I always stop and ponder them because at first glance they seem a bit harsh. I can easily imagine that certain people in the church said something like this: “Wouldn’t it be great if the apostles got together and took over the feeding of the Greek-speaking widows? That would send a powerful message to the congregation, and it would be a healing way to bring the two groups together. After all, the apostles are all Hebrew-speaking Jews and this would prove that they are concerned about the Greek-speaking widows.” Deep in my soul I feel sure that someone in Jerusalem said or at least thought something like that. After all, what could be better than for the leaders to set the pace in personally solving this problem? It’s so easy, and so tempting, to adopt that strategy.
But it would have been dead wrong. That touchy-feely idea would actually have caused the apostles to disobey God’s will. They understood that God had called them to the ministry of the Word and to prayer. Anything that moved them away from that priority—no matter how good or noble or necessary it might be—was actually a diversion from their divine calling.
The same principle holds true for spiritual leaders in general. In any church there are many tasks that need to be done. It is tempting to say to the leadership, “Do a little of everything.” That leads to spiritual disaster. When leaders do a little of everything, they end up doing a whole lot of nothing. Since the church is built upon the Word of God, leaders must devote themselves to the study and teaching of the Word to the congregation. Nothing must be allowed to take the place of this central priority.
More than once John Emmans, who served as pastor here at Calvary from 1952-1958, has told me this story. When he first came to this church (back then it was called Madison Street Bible Church) as a young man, the elders (led by the revered R. E. Nicholas), gave him a sign to put on his door which read, “Do not disturb. In study and in prayer.” They told him to focus on spiritual ministry, and they would watch after the needs of the congregation. I think that’s right in the spirit of Acts 6.
Obviously we’ve moved into another era of church life, with pastors now being responsible for large budgets, multiple programs, and a mountain of administrative details, not to mention the many personal needs of individuals and families. But no amount of cultural change can obscure the basic truth. Spiritual leaders must focus their efforts on the Word of God and prayer. And they must fiercely resist attempts to divert them to other worthy causes.
This may seem hardhearted but it really is nothing more than having a biblical focus. We must not let the good crowd out the best or allow the urgent to push the important off the agenda. Since no one can do everything, spiritual leaders must commit themselves to their primary work of ministering the Word and spending time in prayer.
Step 2: Making a Plan 3-4
Before I go any further, I want you to know that I fervently believe every word I just wrote. However, that’s only part of the story. It is well and good for the apostles to be high-minded about their calling, but we’ve got a group of hungry widows on our hands. What are we going to do about them? After all, if they aren’t fed, they won’t be in any mood to listen to the apostles as they minister the Word. We still need a plan to handle this problem.
It begins with congregational involvement: “Brothers, choose seven men from among you.” It continues with a clear statement of qualifications: “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” There is a commitment to definite delegation: “We will turn this responsibility over to them.” And finally a restatement of their own priorities: “and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
This strikes me as an exceedingly wise approach to the problem. Rather than issuing an edict from on high, they ask the congregation to choose the men who will serve the widows. The statement of personal qualifications shows that they wanted seven spiritually-mature men who would immediately have the respect of the church. Once those men were chosen, they could attack the problem as they wished while the apostles focused on their primary calling. All in all, an excellent way to handle a touchy situation.
Step 3: Finding the Right People 5
Luke tells us that this proposal won unanimous approval: “This proposal pleased the whole group.” Here is a list of the seven men 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.” This list is unique in that all the names are Greek names, meaning that the congregation chose men from within the Greek-speaking section of the church. These men no doubt knew the widows personally, would have the trust of all the Greek-speaking believers, and would know how to handle any problems that might arise.
Step 4: Commissioning the Workers 6
Here is the final step in the process. After the congregation selected the seven men, they were presented to the apostles, who laid their hands on them and prayed for them. This final step is important because it puts the full weight of the 12 apostles behind the seven men. It ensures that the Greek-speaking widows will know that they aren’t being pushed in a corner and that their concerns have been taken seriously at the very highest level. It also sends a message to the congregation that this problem has been dealt with in a forthright manner, and that the apostles truly want to see the Greek-speaking widows fed every day.
III. The Result 7
Verse 7 brings us to the end of this little episode from the early church. First there is new receptivity to the message: “So the word of God spread.” Second, there are many new converts: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem spread rapidly.” Third, there are conversions in high places: “And a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” By God’s grace an interruption that threatened danger became an opportunity for further growth.
What are we to learn from this? Let’s wrap up this message by considering four truths for today.
A. The importance of proper priorities in the work of the Lord
The apostles understood their calling from the Lord, which is why they refused to personally get involved in feeding the widows. What seems harsh and uncaring was actually best for all concerned. Sometimes leaders must say “no” to the good in order to say “yes” to the best. The church starves spiritually when leaders focus on anything other than the Word of God and prayer. I’ve said this before and now I say it again: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s easy to say that little slogan, but hard to put into practice. In every organization a thousand pressures constantly pull us away from our core concerns. In God’s work we must constantly build everything upon the Word of God and prayer. When we do that, ancillary concerns can be addressed and handled. When we forget that, the entire church suffers.
B. The impossibility of a few people doing all the work in the local church
This follows logically. The apostles couldn’t do their work and feed the widows too. The same is true in every church today. No pastor can do it all. Oh, I know there are a few supertalented individuals who can do nine things at once and do them all well. But in the local church there are hundreds of things that need to be done, and therefore hundreds of willing hands are needed.
Here at Calvary I can preach and teach and write and work with the elders and lead the staff and meet with people and pray for the hurting and visit the sick and attend some meetings and answer questions and take phone calls and dream dreams for the future and cast a vision and do a few other things that don’t come to mind right now. I stay plenty busy but no matter how hard I work, I can’t preach and work in the nursery at the same time. I certainly don’t want to play the piano. And the congregation should thank God that it doesn’t have to listen to me sing a solo.
If you have some spare time, read 1 Corinthians 12 and see what it says about the variety of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. God never intended that one man—or one group of men—or any group of men and women—do all the work in the local church. I’m not saying this because of any problems in this area. Not at all. Calvary is the most gracious, non-demanding church I’ve ever been around. The congregation gives me and the other staff members enormous freedom to do our work. My point is that no matter how hard we work, we can’t do everything that needs to be done. We can’t do it all because God never intended the church to work that way.
C. The blessing of many people using their gifts in many ways
This is the flip side of what I’ve just said. Think about our text. In the beginning the widows are going hungry and their friends are upset. Anger threatens the unity of the body. By the end the anger is gone and the widows are fed because the seven men are now serving the Lord and are recognized by the whole congregation. This is precisely how the body of Christ is supposed to function.
Let this sentence sink into your mind: No one does everything but everyone does something. That’s God’s plan for the local church. Some do more, others less, but everyone does something. Yesterday I saw Helen Hemwall and chatted with her as she left the church. With Dr. Hemwall now in heaven, and given her age, she can’t be as active as she once was. “But I can still write to the missionaries, and I can still pray for them,” she said. Bravo! That’s the true New Testament spirit.
D. The value of serving others through practical deeds of kindness
Most Bible commentators say that the first deacons were elected in Acts 6. The Greek word for deacon (diakonos) means servant. The verb form (diakoneo) means “to wait on tables” and is the verb used by the apostles in verse 2. Deacons (and deaconesses) “wait on tables” by ministering to others through practical deeds of kindness. They roll up their sleeves and get busy helping people in a variety of ways.
By the way, let’s be clear on one point. The apostles would have been out of God’s will to wait on tables; the seven men chosen by the congregation were in God’s will when they did what the apostles wouldn’t do. They obeyed God’s will by serving the widows just as much as the apostles obeyed God’s will when they ministered the Word of God. It’s not an either-or proposition. We need leaders who will devote themselves to the Word of God and to prayer, and we need deacons who will serve the widows. Both are absolutely necessary for the church to function properly.
That leads me to ask if there are any CIA agents reading this message. I’m not referring to the Central Intelligence Agency, but to the brand-new Compassion in Action ministry of Calvary Memorial Church. Although our people have been involved in community service in a variety of ways, this is our first venture to do something in an organized fashion. The CIA mission statement reads this way: “We are a community of believers seeking to bring our neighbors one step closer to Christ by meeting their needs with acts of compassionate service.” I love that phrase “one step closer to Christ” because it recognizes that only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to Jesus. But we can break down walls of resistance by getting involved in meeting genuine human needs.
Wayne Kuna tells me there are three ways people can get involved—or more accurately, three levels of involvement: First, you can join the S.O.S.—the Society of Samaritans. God often uses human need to place a breach in the wall that people put up to avoid spiritual things. Those volunteering to be a part of S.O.S. will fill out an application where they can check off how much time they can commit. They will also identify talents, gifts, and skills that can be used to serve others in Jesus’ name—getting groceries, doing basic electrical work, jumping a car, shoveling snow, and so on.
Second, CIA will sponsor whole-day plunges, where volunteers spend the day working at places like Pacific Garden Mission, Circle Urban Ministries, Inner-City Impact, Breakthrough Urban Ministries, New Moms, and Habitat for Humanity. We want to give volunteers in-depth exposure in the hope they will choose to get involved on a deeper level themselves.
Third, CIA seeks Christians who will volunteer on a regular basis at agencies such as the ones mentioned above, and including agencies such as Seguin Services (for the developmentally disabled in our community) or Love in Action (ministering Christ’s love to those infected with HIV/AIDS).
Do You Wanna Join?
We have set an awesome goal. We hope by the end of the year 2000 that every person in our community will have had some contact with CIA. It will take hundreds of people serving in hundreds of ways to reach that goal. But I think it can be done.
At the bottom of the note Wayne Kuna sent me, he wrote these words: “Do you wanna join?” Since this is the CIA, if you join you can be Agent 001, or 002, or even 007. We’ll give you whatever number you want.
The most precious commodity anyone has is time. Sometimes we’d rather write a check than get involved personally. Yet God is calling us to give our most precious commodity by taking time to become a friend to those in need and witnessing God’s love to them.
“Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Dr. King was right. Not everyone can be great in the eyes of the world, not everyone can be rich or famous. But anyone can be great because serving others is within the reach of everyone who reads these words.
You’ll never be more like Jesus than when you serve someone else. God is looking for some CIA agents. Do you wanna join?