Acts 6 reminds us that every church must deal with internal problems—even problems of prejudice. It also demonstrates that when we address problems as opportunities for ministry, follow biblical principles, and maintain ministry priorities, the gospel is served, not hindered.
When the Holy Spirit launched the beginning of the church, the church took off like a race car. In Acts chapter 2, 3,000 people responded in faith; by chapter 4 the church had grown to some 5,000 men—and that number did not include women and children. Acts 5:14 simply reports that multitudes were added. No number is even given. It is almost as if they had given up on keeping track.
Now just because the church is succeeding does not mean the devil has surrendered. He is always putting roadblocks in the way to try to slow the church down and, if possible, stop it.
Persecution was the first roadblock: Peter and John were thrown into jail. That didn’t work, though, because an angel released them miraculously. Deception was next, as it slithered into the church community with the lying and manipulation by Ananias and Sapphira. But that was immediately and dramatically dealt with by God Himself. And now we find a third roadblock to the forward movement of the church, and this is the biggest challenge yet.
Before we go any farther in our journey, let me make an observation—and for those of you who serve in the church, this is critically important to remember: Fruitful and effective churches are not immune to problems. In other words, being a biblical, vibrant church does not protect you from problems. In fact, it invites them, and you have to handle them with wisdom and courage.
We are now in Acts chapter 6, which opens in verse 1 with yet another positive statement of growth: “In these days when the disciples were increasing in numbers.” Then, we’re immediately introduced to a problem: “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.”
Let me quickly add another observation here: It doesn’t take very long for problems to surface. This church is less than six months old.
The problem involves a group called the “Hellenists” who are complaining that their “widows [are] being neglected in the daily distribution.” We know from history that in the Jewish synagogue, a routine service to the needy and especially the widows took place every Friday. Volunteers went around the market and private houses, collecting whatever shop owners and homeowners were able to give away, whether it was clothing or money or food. Later in the day, the volunteers distributed what they had collected. The church seems to have adopted that practice and actually expanded it. The text here refers to the “daily distribution.” The needs are so great that this is not being done only on Friday but every day.
This is a pretty serious complaint that Hellenistic widows are not being treated fairly in this distribution. Perhaps they are being visited last when there are no more tomatoes left, or the money is all gone by the time their neighborhood is visited.
This was nothing less than personal prejudice. It was sinful. And beloved, prejudice is never ultimately about background, or education, or language, or skin color. Prejudice is a problem of the heart—it comes forth from a sinful, self-centered heart.
There were actually two kinds of Jews in this early church. One group is called Hellenists, or Hellenistic Jews; the other group is Hebrews, or Palestinian Jews. The Hebrews were faithful Jews who had remained in the land of promise over the centuries; they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic.
The Hellenistic Jews were those who had chosen to live outside the land. They were still Jews, but they now spoke Greek and had absorbed some of Greek, or Hellenistic, culture. The Hebrews considered them “second-class” Jews who were tainted by the Greek world.
Well, many of these Hellenistic Jews had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost and then come to saving faith in Christ when they heard the gospel. They had decided to stay in Jerusalem and join the church and be a part of this phenomenal, new covenant work of God.
But listen, walking through the doorway of a church, so to speak, does not erase centuries of prejudice. In fact, the church today still struggles with this same issue. I have seen it in every country I have visited over the years.
It is prejudice arising from a history of conflict that today keeps many Japanese and Chinese people from getting along. National or tribal pride fuels prejudice that keeps African nations embroiled in hard feelings toward one another, even leading to genocide. Social or economic differences can cause prejudice as we see between Argentinians and Peruvians and between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Political conflicts from the past continue to surface hard feelings between the Taiwanese and the mainland Chinese. And historical grievances and civil rights injustices can separate blacks and whites in America.
Beloved, here, 2,000 years ago this same issue, prejudice, has the potential of cutting the early church in half. If this is not handled wisely and courageously, the believers are going to split into two churches—The First Church of the Hebrew Christians and The First Church of the Hellenistic Christians.
The apostles offer a solution:
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (verses 2-4)
The point is not that there is something less spiritual about distributing food and clothing. Serving tables is a vital ministry. The issue here is the priority of the apostles’ teaching and prayer ministry. They cannot be distracted from their ministry of instructing, guiding, and developing the church at large. So, somebody else is going to have to handle this issue wisely, so that every widow is treated fairly.
Now as the apostles give instructions regarding the selection of men to oversee this work, here is a third observation: Ministry positions in the church should be based upon character, not experience.
You might have noticed that none of the qualifications are related to a business degree or financial management experience. First, they are to be men with a good reputation. That is, they should be known for their godly conduct.
Second, they must be “full of the Spirit.” The idea of “full” does not imply that other Christians only have half a tank of the Spirit and these men have a full tank. To be full of the Spirit means to be under the control—to be dominated by—the Holy Spirit.
Third, they are to be “full . . . of wisdom.” These men must have lives marked by wisdom. The decisions they make and the lifestyle they exhibit should communicate godly wisdom—the translation of biblical truth into life.
Seven men are selected; and isn’t it interesting that these seven men all have Greek names? It is likely they are all Hellenistic Jews. The church is going out of its way to show that partiality and prejudice are not going to govern the church.
Verse 6 tells us the apostles “prayed and laid their hands on them.” This was an act of commissioning them to their new ministry to widows.
And note what happens as a result:
The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (verse 7)
All because seven godly men are willing to step up and tackle this issue squarely, graciously, and wisely, the church moves on. But a new truth takes root—when you come to the foot of the cross, the ground is level. And when you join the family of God, you are joining a new race, a race of redeemed sinners who belong to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ—forever.