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"First Things, First!"

MESSAGE FOR May 23, 2010 FROM ACTS 6:1-7

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          This week, we come to the end of the first section of the book of Acts.  As we have seen, in this first section Luke keeps his focus narrow--on what God was doing almost exclusively through the apostles and exclusively within the area in and around Jerusalem.  In the next section, he will expand the story to include what Jesus was doing, not only through the apostles, but also through other godly leaders like Stephen and Philip and what Jesus was doing in areas beyond Jerusalem.  The text we will look at this morning has played a very important role in the church.  Many scholars believe the first seven verses of Acts chapter six provide the basis for the office of deacon in the church.  We can also learn a great deal from the wonderful example of apostolic decision making or, more accurately--apostolic crisis intervention.  This text is a gold mine in many ways, so let’s begin to dig into it as we read this very important section beginning with verse one.

Luke writes, “1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 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. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And 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.”

At first glance, it may seem like this problem that faced the early church was simply a matter of adjusting some administrative protocols—the church’s initial, informal administrative structures were no longer able to keep up with the growing needs--so just add another layer of workers to keep up with the growth. This shift certainly included that, but as we will see, the apostles are met with a potentially very serious problem that—had it not been addressed promptly and with much wisdom, could have split this infant church.  Let’s support that.  The church at this time was 100% Jewish in its makeup.  But there were two fairly distinct groups among those Jews.  The majority group was the Palestinian or Hebraic Jews.  That is, those Jews who were native to what we would today call Israel and most of them were from the Jerusalem area.  They spoke Greek and Aramaic and in some cases Hebrew and they had their own distinct culture that had been shaped by centuries of Hebrew history and tradition.  This group accounted for between 80-90% of the church at this time.[1]  Many of them considered themselves superior to the other group of Jews.[2] 

This other 10-20% of the Jews at this time were called Hellenistic or Grecian Jews.  These were people, like the Palestinian Jews, who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but who were born outside of Palestine.  They were native to those largely Gentile parts of the Roman Empire that Paul and others would later reach with the gospel.  These Hellenistic Jews were distinguished mostly by the fact that they could speak only Greek.  They needed their own, separate Jewish synagogues because they couldn’t speak the Aramaic and Hebrew spoken in the Palestinian synagogues. Also, the Grecian Jews came from a very different culture that was much more influenced by Greek history and tradition than the Semitic culture of Palestine.  These Hellenistic Jews mentioned here in Acts six are believers who had migrated from other parts of the empire and settled in Palestine.  While there, they had been converted to Christ under the preaching of the apostles.  These believers were often looked upon by the Palestinian Jews as second class Jews and were even hated by some of the Hebrews. 

We see some of this tension between the Palestinian Jews and the Hellenistic Jews in some of Paul’s writings.  When he is defending the authenticity of his apostleship in Second Corinthians, he makes a point of declaring that—even though he was from Tarsus—well outside of Palestine, he was a both a Hebrew AND an Israelite.  Paul could not only speak Greek, but also Hebrew and Aramaic and therefore saw himself as Palestinian.  His detractors the false teachers had apparently attacked his upbringing in the Greek dominated Tarsus in an attempt to undermine his credibility as a true Hebraic Jew.  Paul responds by defending his Palestinian heritage.  As he says in Philippians 3:5, he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.”  

All of that to say—the significant language and cultural differences and sometimes prejudices present in these two distinct Jewish groups made the possibility for division in the early church a very real danger.  This ethnic diversity was a fault line in the church that could become a point of significant division if the right pressures were applied to this vulnerable area.  In Acts six, we see just such a pressure applied to this area and we must understand that truth if we are to appreciate the nature of the problem Luke describes in Acts six.  Luke describes the nature of the problem this way in verse one, “…a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”  Now you understand--this wasn’t just a food shortage problem.  The Hebraic or Palestinian widows were being tended to just fine.  The Old Testament law commands the care of widows multiple times and so providing for widows was part of the Jewish culture in which these people were saved. 

The widow in ancient cultures is a very needy person.  That remains true today in the third world.  There were no government assistance programs—no retirement benefits or pensions and no life insurance policies from the husband to live on and the vast majority of the people lived from hand to mouth.  Because men were the bread winners, when a woman lost her husband, that caused a real problem for her if there were no other family members around.  It was these widows with no families that Luke is talking about here. If they were to survive, they needed a larger community to support them.  The church had been meeting the needs of the widows from Palestine just fine.  But the widows native to the Hellenistic areas—who were not from Palestine—were part of the minority—were not as well connected to the church because there were no Hellenistic apostles--were going hungry.

You can imagine how serious this issue was—given the fact that there was already a fault line between the Palestinian Jews and the Hellenistic Jews.  Luke says, “…a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”  The word translated “complaint” means “to murmur.”  It’s the same word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe what the Israelites did to Moses in the wilderness—they murmured against him.  In other words, it wasn’t just that some highly regarded Grecian Jews humbly stood before the apostles and registered a formal, dispassionate complaint—“Brothers, I would like to bring to your attention the fact that some of the Grecian Jews are being neglected and are not receiving their daily bread. Could we do something about that?”  No.  This wasn’t neat and clean.  It was messy and sinful.  This was a persistent muttering among the Hellenists.  It probably went like this, “Those Hebraic Jews—who do they think they are?!  You’ll notice that none of THEIR widows get overlooked in the daily distribution—its only US, OUR widows who get the short end of the stick—can you believe them?—allowing OUR elderly women to go hungry just because we are not from here—how does that look like Jesus?”  That’s the kind of murmuring the apostles faced.

Luke reflects this tension in the phrase in verse one“…THEIR widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  This situation created an us/them mentality that was toxic to unity.  Christ came to unite all ethnic groups in himself.  This inter-ethnic unity was part of what set the church apart from the Jews who had not believed in Jesus, but it was being jeopardized by this overlooking of the Grecian Jewish widows.  Imagine what that oversight could have led to when there were already existing ethnic prejudices.  This was a potential firestorm!  It’s into that delicate situation that the apostles must speak and it’s that problem—with all its potential for explosive consequences they address with such great wisdom.  We want to spend the rest of today and next time focusing on the wisdom of their intervention, but before we do that—notice one more thing by way of introduction. That is—the effect of numerical growth on the community.

This problem would almost certainly not have existed had it not been for the explosive growth the early church was experiencing.  Luke states this plainly in verse one when he says, “Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint…arose”   Luke wants us to see that this problem was not due to any intentional oversight but was a consequence of the increasing number of disciples and that’s an important truth for us to remember.  Growth can be a wonderful thing in a church—especially if the growth is in new converts being added to the Lord, but it can be a hard thing too.  Until you make these kinds of changes to involve more people in leadership, people’s needs can easily be overlooked.  Growth in a church can also create tensions similar to the ones we see here.  There can very easily be a fault line between the newer people and the established people. 

The example the apostles set here in breaking down potential walls of division has implications for how we love the new people who attend our church.  Like the apostles, we want to do everything we can to minimize any us/them mentality between those who have been here for 40 years and those who are comparatively new to our church.  As a non Duluth native--trust me—there is a very strong us/them mentality in this community.  The church must be distinct from that fallen culture here.  There is NO US/THEM in the church of Christ—there is only HIS.  Not new versus old…HIS!  We are ONE in Christ!  It’s not about how long we have been here—it’s about Who we belong to!  It’s not about how many ministries we have served in; it’s Who we are serving.  We must work hard in the church to break down those prevalent inside/outside dividing walls and treat everyone the same here and that means—among other things, when someone you don’t recognize is standing in the fellowship area or the hallway with no one to talk to—leave your old comfortable circle of friends and engage them with the love of Christ. 

Now, in the brief time remaining, let’s begin our study of the great wisdom God gives the apostles to address this very delicate and potentially explosive problem Luke records here.  The expression of the apostles’ wisdom we want to examine today is remarkable, not in something they DID, but in what they did NOT do.  That is—the apostles show their God-given wisdom by choosing to solve the big problem rather than rebuke the sin.  It’s clear from the words that Luke uses there that there was sin in the church among the Hellenistic Jews.  This kind of murmuring is sinful. The Jews who murmured against Moses were harshly disciplined.  In Exodus 11 after God supplied quail in response to their murmuring about the manna, God struck them with a plague.  In chapter 12, when Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, Miriam was struck with leprosy and was made to sit outside of the camp for a week.  Finally, in chapter 14, the people murmured about the giants in the Promised Land after the spies came back and gave their report.  God judged them by making all but two of that generation die in the wilderness. 

Murmuring is prohibited as sin in the New Testament as well.  Paul says in Philippians 2:14, “14 Do all things without grumbling [same word] or questioning,” Peter also addresses this in First Peter 4:9 where he says, “9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling [same word].   This kind of murmuring is forbidden in both the Old and New Testament.  God takes murmuring seriously.  Yet the apostles don’t even address it. Why not?  Well, the first thing we have to do is stop this grumbling because this is wicked—our fathers did this in the wilderness to Moses and we know how that turned out—our first order of business is to address the sin in the camp!  Why didn’t they address it that way?  They certainly could have built a Biblical argument for that response.  Some of us might have wanted to take that approach—why didn’t the apostles?  Two words—wisdom and compassion.  Let’s take compassion first.

How Christ-like would it be to confront a situation where older, widowed women are starving…by spending time and energy chasing down people who complain about that?  Is that the kind of church Christ wants to display to the world?  The pagan emperor Julian had no love for the church in the 300’s, but he said this about the early Christians, “Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers...the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”[3]  Even a pagan like Julian couldn’t help noticing the love of Christ seen in the church through their concern for the poor and needy.  The church is to reflect the compassion of Christ.  What’s compassionate or appealing to the world about making your first priority the discipline of people who complain because their old women are going hungry?

The apostles show great wisdom here.  Let’s look more specifically at what was behind their wisdom in handling this problem as they did.  First, the apostles allowed the whole counsel of God to help them see God’s priority.  Its true there was sin among the Hellenistic complainers, but the apostles knew that heart of God was found, not only in a few Scriptures on murmuring, but in the entire sweep of the Biblical teaching.  They looked beyond texts prohibiting grumbling to the larger message of the Bible that revealed to them where God’s heart was on this issue.  As it relates to the sin of murmuring in this instance, the Spirit of God obviously caused them to follow the counsel of texts like Proverbs 19:11, “11 Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”  Given the dynamics of this situation, it was clearly right for the apostles to overlook the offense of murmuring.  That was not the big problems here.  They knew God’s biggest concern here was in showing compassion to the Hellenistic widows and in so doing, preserving the unity of his bride, the church--that’s God’s priority. 

What would have resulted from the Palestinian apostles calling in all the Hellenistic grumblers and rebuking them? The fault lines would have violently separated and you would have had an ethnic earthquake in the church! The Peacemaker Ministries, who take this whole Bible approach, have rightly said that the first option in any conflict is to overlook the offense.   So many problems in the church could be avoided if this counsel were consistently followed.  The reason some people are in a state of perpetual conflict with others is because they rarely if ever overlook an offense.

There are obviously times when overlooking an offense is not God’s heart and the Peacemakers capture the Biblical truth by saying that if the offense is too serious—that is, if it could destroy the person if not confronted or, if overlooking it will hurt the relationship, then you must work for reconciliation.  But otherwise, the first option in conflict is to overlook the offense.  Overlooking an offense is a form of forgiveness and the apostles wisely choose to simply forgive the sinners here.[4]  This was godly wisdom in this case.  Had they chosen to prosecute the sin, it would have done much more damage.  The whole counsel of God clearly indicates that demonstrating compassion to someone in need and working for the unity of the church of Christ is far higher on God’s priority list than disciplining people for complaining when an injustice is being done.  That doesn’t make the complaining right—but in this case where the unity of the church was threatened, overlooking the offense was clearly God’s will.

Second, the apostles were able to act with wisdom because they were led by the Holy Spirit, not their own personal prejudices.  We mustn’t forget that the apostles were all members of the Palestinian Jewish community—they were from Galilee in Israel.  But they clearly had no personal prejudice against the Hellenistic Jews to blur their vision.  If they had been personally prejudiced against the Grecian Jews, that would have perhaps caused them to look more intently at the sin than at the need of the widows.  Our personal biases and pathologies easily blind us to God’s perspective.  That’s why Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:5, “5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.  In times of conflict like this one in Acts six, we have a sacred obligation to make certain we aren’t operating out of the smallness of our own flesh. 

If you are feeling embittered or hurt of angered by someone, you should have very little confidence in your ability to judge them correctly.  We are much more likely to want to deliver a “gotcha” to people who for some reason we resent for some reason.  By “gotcha” I mean taking some level of perverse delight in finding fault with those who we think have wronged us and confronting them about it.  In a “gotcha,” we aren’t motivated by a deep concern for the person’s soul, but because there is something sickeningly satisfying in rebuking someone you inwardly resent. If we have this kind of resentment, that will blind us to the option of overlooking the sin of someone who has hurt us.  The apostles had no such prejudices here and they were able to clearly sense the leading of the Holy Spirit and make a wise decision here.  That’s one reason why a group of leaders is much more liable to make good decisions than a single individual.  Proverbs 11:14 says, “…in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” In a group of leaders, one person’s prejudice will not dictate the decision.  On a personal level, this means we should often seek the counsel of others who will be honest with us before we confront the sin because they may see something in us that will blind us to doing the right thing.

We will look at more expressions of the apostles’ wisdom in this situation next time as we try to learn from their example.  But for this morning—do your priorities align with God’s?  Are you more concerned about solving the big problems for the advancement of the kingdom, or focusing on others’ sin?  Is your heart and what you deeply care about influenced by the whole counsel of God, or do you find yourself majoring on the minors by repeatedly going to the same narrow set of texts in your dealings with the sin of others?  Is your concern for others’ obedience rooted in your genuine love for them as a person, or do you just live for the gotcha moment that is borne out of your own resentment?  Do you make intense, heroic efforts to take the log from your own eye before you go after the speck in your brother or sister’s eye?  May God give us the grace to live wisely for our joy and his glory.


[1] Bock, ECNT, Acts, p.258

[2] The distinctions between Hellenistic and Palestinian Jews come from many sources—most explicitly Longenecker’s in depth treatment in his commentary of Acts in the Expositors series—electronic edition.

[3] http://hfny.org/mediafiles/wholistic-ministry.pdf

[4] http://www.peacemaker.net/site/c.aqKFLTOBIpH/b.958151/k.5236/The_Slippery_Slope_of_Conflict.htm

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