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"More Apostolic Wisdom"

MESSAGE FOR JUNE 6, 2010 FROM ACTS 6:1-7

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This week, we pick up where we left off last time in our series of messages from Acts.  Chapter six concludes the first section of the book and Luke closes it by relating a potentially explosive conflict that confronted the apostles.  The church, which was at this point 100% Jewish, had within it two distinct ethnic groups.  The majority group was the Palestinian or Hebraic Jews who spoke Greek, Aramaic and some Hebrew.  They were native to what we would today call Israel. The other group, which made up between 10-15% of the infant church was made up of Hellenistic or Grecian Jews who were not native to Palestine, but were born and raised in the outlying areas of the Roman Empire.  These Jews spoke only Greek and lived within a culture that was very distinct from the Hebraic Jews in Palestine.  They were in some ways as much influenced by Aristotle as by Abraham in their thinking and living, but many of them were devout and were looking for the promised Messiah.  

A significant number of these Hellenistic Jews migrated back to Palestine in their older years because many at this time believed it was important to be buried in their ancient homeland, Palestine.  While they were there, they came under the influence of the apostles who were preaching Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and raised from the dead in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and many were miraculously converted by the Holy Spirit.  As we saw last time, this Hellenistic/Hebraic cultural dynamic created a tension between these groups.  In Acts six, Luke records an instance when those tensions were exposed and the apostles faced a situation that, if not handled wisely and promptly, could have divided the early church.

Let’s read Luke’s account in Acts 6:1-7.  He says, “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.

As we saw last time, the problem that confronted the apostles was, though the needs of the Palestinian widows were being met by the church, the much smaller group of Grecian widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  The pre-existing tensions between these groups were doubtless aggravated at this point and the potential for a division along ethnic and cultural lines became a possibility.  In response to this conflict, the apostles call an all-church meeting (the church numbered perhaps 10,000 at this time) to announce their intervention.   The decision they implement shows several marks of the apostolic wisdom that, again this week, we want to examine and by God’s grace learn from.  A need had arisen that was serious on both a personal level—widows were going hungry, and on an organizational level—this could breed resentment between the two ethnic groups in the church.   As apostles, they were commissioned by Jesus to provide leadership and one of the first question leaders ask when confronted with a problem is—“Is this a problem we need to address directly, or this be delegated to someone else?” The first mark of apostolic wisdom is seen in the way in which they allowed their larger mission and priorities, not the pressing needs of the moment, to dictate the way they did ministry.

They begin to announce their decision in verse two, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”  That’s an interesting way for them to respond, don’t you think?  A potentially divisive conflict confronts the church which, as we saw last week, is seen in this persistent murmuring about this inequity among the widows in the church.  In response to the murmuring, the apostles call a meeting to render their decision on how they will address the conflict and they begin their response essentially with –“This is not our job…  Why?  Why do they state the negative aspect of whose job it is NOT first?  More specifically, why do the apostles make their priority the ministry of the Word and how does that display wisdom? 

Here’s the answer.  The apostles’ decision reflects the priority of Jesus regarding the ministry of the Word.   They had learned this priority from their Master.  We must never forget the context with these apostles.  They had been with Jesus for three years—watching him, listening to his teaching, witnessing his miracles.  Then Jesus left and with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to bring to remembrance of his teaching so that (among other things) when confronted with challenges like this one, they would have the mind of Christ.  When the apostles make a priority of the ministry of the Word, they’re not simply exercising good managerial judgment.  Granted, it would have been foolish for the 12 to wait on tables because there were plenty of others who could do that and it would have a been poor expression of their unique apostolic call and gifts.  But their rationale for making the ministry of the Word the priority doubtless runs much deeper than that stewardship issue. 

They had learned from their Master the priority of the ministry of the Word.  We know Luke wants us to see the priority of Christ in these apostles from his stated purpose for writing the book of Acts.  Remember, Luke gives the purpose of the book in his very first sentence.  He ties the purpose of this letter to his purpose in writing the gospel of Luke when he opens this letter with, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach.”  Luke clearly sees the gospel of Luke as his account of the beginning of what Jesus did and taught, while he wrote what we call the letter of “Acts” to show what Jesus continued to do… through the apostles.  If we don’t understand Luke’s purpose, we will miss so much in this letter.

That’s why when we look at the apostles’ ministry, the decisions and priorities they lived and ministered by, we must look for Christ—because it is the continuation of his ministry.  And we see the priority Jesus placed on the ministry of the Word plastered all over the gospels.  In Matthew 24:35 Jesus says, “35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  Here in Matthew, he shows us the priority of the ministry of the Word by saying that my word—unlike any material thing in heaven and earth, is eternal. The words of Jesus transcend this world—they will be in heaven. The words of Jesus surely includes all the Bible’s teaching because as any Old Testament scholar will tell you, virtually every teaching of Jesus came directly from the Old Testament. 

My Old Testament professors I seminary became deeply offended when they heard someone speak of the new teachings Jesus gave.  Jesus gave amazingly few groundbreaking teachings.  There were very few NEW teachings of Jesus.  One of the very few areas of doctrine where Jesus plowed any new ground was in his teaching on hell.  Seventy five percent of what the Bible says about hell—truths that describe hell as a place where “the worm does not die and the fire is never quenched”—comes only from Jesus.  The vast majority of the teaching of Jesus is seamless in its consistency with the Old Testament and within the 89chapters that comprise the gospels; he directly quotes the Old Testament 78 times.[1]  He alludes to it many more times than that.  He says in Matthew 5:17, 17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” What Jesus does with the Old Testament that is “new” is--he helps us see how it points to him. 

We again see the priority of Word ministry in how Jesus responds to temptation in Matthew chapter four.  It’s instructive to note that when Satan confronts him with his three temptations, in each case Jesus repels him with a direct quotation from the Old Testament Law.  He could employ no more effective weapon against the Adversary than Old Testament truth like the one he uses in verse four when Satan tempts him to turn stones into bread.  Jesus responds with, “…It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”  Through his example, Jesus invests in the Word of God the power to repel Satan, but he also teaches here that spiritual life has as its source the Word that comes from the mouth of God.  You live by every word that comes for God’s mouth.  Again, he teaches the value of the Word ministry in John 10. 

Jesus was often attacked by the Jews for his claims to be God and in John 10 calls God his Father and the Jews picked up stones to execute him for what they considered to be blasphemy.  How does Jesus defend himself against the charge of blasphemy by claiming to be God’s Son?  He cites the Scriptures.   Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, [and then he quotes from Psalm 82]‘I said, you are gods’?  35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?  Jesus explains to the Jews that his claim to be God’s Son was not blasphemy because the Old Testament itself—in Psalm 82 uses the word “god” to refer to others besides the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Therefore, on that Biblical basis, he claims it’s not wrong for him to call himself the Son of God.   In this instance, he rests the case for the appropriateness of his self-designation as the Son of God on one Hebrew noun in a rather obscure Psalm.  He then slams the lid shut on possible objections to his defense by appealing to the utter reliability of the Scripture when he says without qualification, “…and the Scripture cannot be broken. That word translated “broken” means that the Scripture cannot be “annulled or set aside or proved false.”[2]  That’s what Jesus believed about the Old Testament.  In his mind, the fact that he cites Scripture in his defense renders it impregnable—that truth cannot be denied with validity. 

We see this same priority of Word ministry in Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17.  He is praying for his disciples and he says beginning with verse 13, “13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”  He’s at the end of his earthly ministry and he prays for his disciples.  Notice, he gives a summary statement of his entire ministry to the apostles.  He summarizes it by saying, “I have given them your word...”   Jesus clearly sees the cornerstone of his ministry to the apostles as his Word-giving ministry.  Then he prays that God would sanctify the apostles.  That is--that they would be set apart for ministry—that’s what the word “sanctify” means—to set apart.  But that’s only half of it.  They were to be set apart as holy.  That means that Jesus is praying that the apostles would not only be set apart for their unique ministry, but that God would make them holy—like himself.  And how does Jesus ask that God would do that?  He says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”  Jesus invests the word of God with the power to set apart the twelve apostles and make people holy.  The Word does that!

Earlier in John, Jesus cites another blessing of the Word of God in 8:31-32.   31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Jesus makes two claims about his word.  First, the Word is that which—if you abide in it—you rest in it—you trust in it—if you do that, that will authenticate you as a genuine disciple of Christ.  So the acid test that separates the genuine disciple from the poser is whether they abide in the words of Jesus.  Do you hear the ponderous weight Jesus gives the Word here?  Second, if you know the truth of the Word, you will be set free and this liberation clearly speaks of the Word’s liberating power from sin.   Knowing the Word gives you victory over sin.  Let me give you an example.

A woman from Wyoming called me the other day—I’m not sure how she got my name and she explained to me that she was struggling with a powerful addiction that she could not break.  She was in bondage to this sin and it was tearing her up inside.  As I have with many others, I cited this verse and told her that the Word of God sets people free from sin that enslaves us.  I explained that some sins have such a light pull on us and they only require a mention of a verse to bring us to freedom.  Others sins (like hers), that we have allowed to build a stronghold into our souls, require much more truth.  She needed first to believe the truth that upon her confession of her sin, God has forgiven her from her sin because Romans six tells us that we cannot be free from the downward pull of sin until we believe the gospel that we have been forgiven of it. Second, she needed to find Bible texts that speak directly to God’s view of her particular sin to meditate upon and memorize. Third, she needed a trusted friend who, when she was feeling weak, would be there to speak truth into her life and finally, she needed to continue to pray the truth about her sin to God.  A comprehensive truth assault is needed to get free from long-established addictive sinful patterns.  The Word liberates from sin—some sins require a water pistol dose of the Word.  Others need a cannon’s worth, but in any case, it’s the Word that liberates.  I’ve seen people set free from addictive sins they have been enslaved to for decades by the correct application of Scriptural truth.

Finally, we see the intense priority Jesus placed on the Word in the Great Commission.  What does Jesus say in his last earthly pronouncement to his apostles? “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  A crucial part of the Great Commission is that the apostles are charged to teach others to observe all that he had commanded them.  The apostles are commissioned to make disciples and central to that mission is the teaching of the Word—not only its content, but how to live it.  So, let’s review what Jesus had taught the disciples about the Word that would have implied the supremacy of its priority in ministry.  He says the Word is unique to anything else in heaven and earth because it is eternal—it will never cease to be and will never be irrelevant.  He invests the Word with the power to repel Satan and the power to impart spiritual life.  He rests the case for his most important claims about himself on the testimony of Scripture.  He sees his ministry of the Word as the cornerstone of his ministry to the apostles and he invests the Bible with the power to set apart twelve small businessmen to be the most important mortals in church history.  He says that the Word—if abided in—is what authenticates a genuine disciple of his in a church full of phonies.  He says the word liberates from the power of sin and in his final commission of the disciples, he commissions them, not to wait on tables but to make disciples and central to that task was teaching the Word.

In light of the exquisite emphasis Jesus places on the priority of the Word of God, is it any wonder that, when the apostles were confronted with the option of neglecting their ministry of the Word to wait on tables, they without hesitation rejected that option and made as their priority preaching the Word.  The apostles chose as they did and showed this tremendous wisdom because they had learned it from their Master. They knew the truth that Paul later would articulate to his disciple Timothy.  That is, 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  Why would you possibly wait on tables—something—many other people could do just as well or better than you, when you have been divinely commissioned to handle the God-breathed Word that equips people to be equipped for every good work—like ministering to widows.  The first mark of their apostolic wisdom is in their choice to allow their larger vision and priorities, not the needs of the moment, to dictate the way they did ministry.

We see another mark of wisdom in the way in which the apostles implemented this intervention that solved the widow problem.  Let’s read beginning in verse five, “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.”  Notice two things wise elements of in their implementation of their decision.  First, they involve the larger church in the implementation. It was doubtless a bit cumbersome to call the whole church together for this, but apostles chose to do that.  Why?  Several reasons.  First, it helps the church know that the apostles see this as a serious problem and knowing that would have helped the Hellenists who were murmuring that their concerns weren’t being taken seriously.  Second, the church at large would have known who the capable leaders were better than the apostles anyway.  The apostles were out preaching and teaching and praying—not developing new leaders.

The apostles show a noticeable lack of any controlling impulses here. Again, we see the influence of Jesus and the servant leadership he modeled for them.  They don’t act like aloof elitists—working things out in a back room somewhere with a group of insiders.  For this kind of problem, they know it is best to involve the whole church.  They trust the church to recommend good people because the church would have wanted good people to handle a problem like this. Trusting the church to get the right people would have affirmed the church.  We mustn’t forget—at this point, the apostles would have been seen as spiritual celebrities by most of the church. In chapter four we saw that even Peter’s shadow passing over people was thought to have healing power.   At his word, two people dropped dead. These men were big news at this point.  Yet, where there is a problem, they come to the church and say, “Hey, why don’t you find seven qualified individuals?”  That could have been powerfully affirming.    Luke reflects that in verse five when he says, “And what they [the apostles] said pleased the whole gathering…”  They don’t use their expert power to set themselves up as dictators here but instead, they’re just part of the team.

Another mark of wisdom is they set the parameters and gave gentle oversight.   The apostles knew when to let others do things and what role they must play.  Delegation of responsibility is not abdication of responsibility.  Although the church was tasked with recruiting qualified people, the apostles were the ones laying out the qualifications. They said in verse three “…pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”  The apostles set the parameters or qualifications for the job—that’s leadership, but they allowed the church to have ownership of who was chosen.  When the church selected the men, it says in verse six, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid hands on them.”   That means that the apostles placed their stamp of approval and when they laid hands on them, they might have imparted to them some spiritual gift.  We know that happened when Paul laid hands on Timothy. If there was something wrong with one of these men, the apostles clearly would have weeded him out at this point.

We know that the church chose well.  We see the excellence of Stephen as a man of God in chapter seven when he preaches that magnificent sermon and in chapter eight, Luke tells of the exploits of another of these seven, Philip.  Notice too that the church chose men with Hellenistic names—one of them from Antioch.  These men who were called upon to minister to the Hellenistic widows were Hellenists—a wise move.  Finally, Luke summarizes this section of Acts by relating the impact of this intervention.  Verse seven says, “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.”  Luke pictures the Word as a living entity—THE WORD of God continued to increase--which we know it is—it is living and active according to Hebrews 4:12.  The reason the Word spread was because the apostles were free to minister the Word unimpeded by other duties. The result was that the number of disciples multiplied greatly—especially among the Jewish priesthood.  Luke clearly wants us to see the connection between ministry where the teaching of the Word is a priority and the growth of the church.  That relationship has not changed.

As we close—let’s think for a moment about this applies to us.  First, how consistent with Jesus and the apostles are you with the priority they place on the Word of God?  On an individual level, with all the things we saw the Word does for us, doesn’t it make sense to be willing to get up a bit earlier and spend time reading it through in a year.  As with the apostles, there are always a 1000 needs of the moment screaming for our time.  We must follow their example and not neglect the ministry of the Word to do the other things in our life.  If you read three chapters a day, you can almost get through it in a year.  As a church, we must continue to strive to make the Word of God central to all our ministries.  It gives life—it sets us free—abiding in it authenticates us as genuine disciples of Christ.  This is why we have all our prospective elders take a comprehensive theological test that takes 12 hours to complete.  We want to know where they are weak in the word (among other things) so that we can help them be mighty in the Scriptures so that our church can grow in spiritual depth and breadth.

Finally, are we seeking to be wise in the Lord?  The apostles provide us with a great example.  As you read the narratives, look for God’s wisdom in their decisions.  The apostle James tells us that we can have this wisdom too.  He says in James 1:5, “5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.  God gives wisdom to those who ask.  So ask!  I pray for wisdom all the time.  As the culture continues to move away from a Biblical world view, we need wisdom to live as a follower of Christ in our families, in our careers—all over--and God has promised to give wisdom when we ask.  May God give us the grace to live with apostolic wisdom—steeped in God’s Word for his glory and our joy.

 

We preach Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Cor. 1:24b


[1] http://www.ask.com/web?q=how+many+times+does+jesus+cite+the+Old+Testament&search=&qsrc=0&o=0&l=dir

[2] Carson, D.A. Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, “The Gospel According to John,” p. 399.

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