MESSAGE FOR MARCH 9, 2003 FROM ACTS 6:1-7
As we labor to lay the groundwork for our church’s implementation of our new constitution, this week we continue our series of messages on biblical leadership. Today we begin our treatment of the second office in the church listed in the New Testament, the deacon. I will sometimes use the term “deaconate” for the deacons because it is preferable to the term, “deacon board.” The term “deacon board” or “board of deacons” for many people stirs up images of people sitting around the table, deliberating on church issues. Although that is at times necessary for deacons and even more for elders, that understanding is at odds with the New Testament understanding of what a deacon does. The emphasis of the New Testament as it relates to the ministry of deacons is interactively serving the people—ministering to many of their practical, day-to-day needs. The deaconate should always be associated with SERVING and ACTIVELY MINISTERING to the people. The Greek word translated deacon is “diaconos” and it literally means “one who serves.” Another reason to use the term “deaconate” is that it keeps me from having to say “deacons and deaconesses” all the time because, as we will see at a later date the New Testament provides for female deacons in the ministry of the church.
Paul refers to the deacons in Philippians 1:1 “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:” The two are listed together. In First Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one, Paul treats the issue of deacons immediately after the elders. Before we look at the qualifications of the deaconate, we must first look at what the Bible says about the ministry of the deacons. As we said before, they are not the biblically legitimate governing body of the church. Elders are given that role as we have seen. When deacons are given governing roles in the church, they are not serving as truly New Testament deacons. They may do it and if the men are spiritually mature they may do it reasonably well for a season of time, but they are not functioning within the body as God intends. That does NOT take away from the high calling of the deaconate, but it does show a distinction between deacons and elders. The question that remains to be answered this morning is: “what is the role of the deaconate?” Paul assumes the churches at Ephesus and Crete understand the role of deacons so when he writes to Timothy and Titus, he does not include any explanation of the ministry of a deacon. Nor does he explain it anywhere else in his writings though we know the word of “deacon” in the Greek is always in the plural. Deacons, like the elders should minister as a team.
In order for us to see a picture of the ministry of what came to be known as the deaconate, we must turn to the book of Acts and read what is commonly understood to be the text which provides the basis of our understanding for the ministry of the deacons. Let’s read Acts 6:1-7. 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. 2So 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. 3Brothers, 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." 5This 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. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
The church was growing at this time and the Grecian Jewish widows weren’t being cared for. This was before the days of Social Security or Goodwill. The church took care of those needs and it was a wonderful witness to the world, but in Acts chapter six the church was falling behind and the Grecian Jews were women griping against the Hebraic Jews. They weren’t merely asking to be taken care of, they were griping against the unfairness of the distribution of food and the text implies this became not only a matter of food, but also of prejudice. The job of keeping up with these practical needs had grown too large for the apostles and they had a decision to make. They could either devote more and more of their time to ministering to the physical needs of the growing community and thereby reduce their time for prayer and ministry of the word (that is, to teaching, preaching and evangelism), or they could delegate the ministry of mercy to others and preserve the priority of prayer and ministry of word. They decided to do just that and had the church name seven men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to attend to the physical needs of the church. It is commonly understood that in doing so, they created the first deacons.
The apostles in the early church are clearly parallel in their ministry to the elders in the sense that they were providing the primary leadership to the church. An elder is NOT an apostle, but some of the roles are parallel. One of the reasons why this text, very early in the early church came to be recognized as the textual basis for the ministry of deacons is found in verse two. The apostles say, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” The Greek word translated in the NIV as “wait” is “diakonia” which means, “to serve.” Although two of these men, Philip and Stephen apparently rapidly moved to a word ministry role similar to elders, they are initially appointed to minister to the physical needs of the body.
Herein is the biblical basis for the ministry of the deaconate. From this text they are to primarily minister to the physical needs of the church for two reasons. The first reason is to meet the physical/material needs of the body. The second reason is to liberate the pastor- elders to concentrate and spend the needed time on the ministry of the word and prayer. That in should in no way make any elder feel superior to deacons. The text implies that the apostles waited on tables until it became too much for them. In 6:4 the phrase translated “the ministry of the word” is in the Greek, “the diakonia” of the word—the service of the word. Notice that the elders are ALSO to minister as servants. However, elders must make their chief priority, the ministry of the word and prayer. That does nothing to diminish the role of the deacons--Jesus was the model for the deacon as much as for the elder. He said, "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. The elders should never feel superior to the deacons—both should be mature believers in Christ—sold out for Jesus. What we DON’T want to see in the church is a context develop where people develop the unbiblical attitude that, “to be an elder you have to be really devout but deacons aren’t called to the same level of commitment to Christ.” That is toxic to the church and will doom the vital ministry of the deaconate to mediocrity.
Here’s a good question in this context, where a significant part of the deacon’s ministry is done to free the pastor elders to stay focused on prayer and the ministry of the word. That is, “why is it that the elders need to be so devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word?” Why the need for all the study and prayer? Those questions are all the more pertinent today when these priorities are often neglected and (to cite only one example of this neglect) you can walk into a majority of evangelical churches today and hear very little actual biblical content being preached and taught by pastors. Also, one study cites that the average North American pastor spends an average of five minutes a day in prayer. The apostles recognized their primary calling was to prayer and to the ministry of the word. They wanted to remain true to that calling, so they surrendered their food distribution ministry to these seven men, the deacons.
In order for us to understand the wisdom of the apostles and see why it is so important for the elders to continue to be freed to exercise their primary calling, we must examine the centrality of the word in the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. In the North American church where the premium is placed on a pastor who is skilled in marketing and uses the right church-growth methods and practices great managerial skill, it is easy to lose sight of one of the central distinctions between Christ’s church and any other club or institution--that is, the ministry of the word of God. Let’s take a few moments to focus on why it is so important for the eldership to stay tightly focused on the word and prayer so that we will see how important it is to have deacons who are doing the other invaluable ministries of the church.
When we looked at the ministry of the eldership, we said the elders feed, protect, and lead the flock. Both the Scriptures and the witness of church history teach that to the degree the ministry of the Word and prayer is strong, the flock will be well fed, well led and well protected. However, when the ministry of the Word is weak, you will have a spiritually weak church. By the ministry of the word, I am not referring here to just preaching, but the comprehensive ministry of the word coming from the eldership as it is applied to the lives of people in counseling, working on committees and equipping individuals and groups. Jesus, quotes Deuteronomy chapter eight during his temptation by Satan and he says in Matthew 4:4, “…It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The word gives life—no word, no life—poorly studied and applied word, poor life. Therefore, the church must place a priority on freeing the eldership to minister in the area of prayer and the ministry of the Word. Satan knows the power of the word—the sword of the Spirit that puts him to flight. That’s why you can expect him to spend a significant amount of energy in each local church doing whatever he can to divert the attention of the eldership away from the word and onto other things--not necessarily bad things, just other things.
One scholar in his commentary on the book of Acts sees this temptation for the apostles to leave the ministry of the word to serve tables to be one of three major attacks launched by Satan against the church in the first six chapters of Acts. He sees the first attack being carried out by Jewish leaders who Satan uses to try to suppress the church by external intimidation when they told the apostles not to preach the gospel in chapter four. The attack was thwarted because the apostles chose to obey God, not man. The second satanic attack was through the internal hypocrisy of Ananias and Saphira in chapter five but Peter was obedient to God to confront these two and God disciplined this early hypocrisy. The third attack is seen here in chapter six and is launched by these griping Grecian Jews in an attempt to distract the apostles from prayer and the word. The point is, when those ministries are weakened, Satan can easily sneak in through the back door because evil is primarily exposed through the ministry of prayer and the word. Hebrews 4:12 describes the ministry of the word this way, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to expose the sin and compromise in the human heart and the body of Christ.
Without the ministry of the word, evil can creep in and gradually undermine the church--eating away like cancer until it has taken over. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, he resisted him through the ministry of the word. That is still the only offensive weapon we can employ against the attack of the evil one. Apart from a strong ministry of the word and prayer in the eldership, the church is a sitting duck for Satan. That’s why he works so hard at pulling the eldership away from this ministry. That’s what was beginning to happen here in Acts six and the apostles put a stop to it.
Where do you suppose they learned to guard this priority of the word and prayer? They learned it from their Master. We see a typical scene in the ministry of Jesus in Luke 5:15-16 "Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses."16But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. The crowds are clamoring for Jesus and what does he do? He leaves them—he turns his back of needy people to go and pray. Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 3:16 it is the WORD that trains people in righteousness--If you want a church that is walking in righteousness, you better have a strong ministry of the word. Paul says in Ephesians 2:20 the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” The foundation of the church –that which it is built upon--is the apostolic teaching and the prophetic ministry of the word of God. The cornerstone of the Church is of course Jesus Christ—who is the WORD of God. Do you hear that the church is built in totality upon the Word? That is--the Word in the Person of Christ and the word in the form of apostolic teaching and prophetic truth.
Without the ministry of the word the church has no foundation and sinks into the shifting sand of fallen human wisdom and the latest popular church trend and that is sadly happening today. Jesus says in Matthew 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” The ministry of the word is what causes the ministry of the church to endure. Any other foundation, any other primary emphasis, any other ministry focus may produce something that looks very impressive on the outside, but it will burn in the fire. The only thing that endures is what is built upon the word. Unless the ministry of the word is the central focus of a church’s ministry--it is nothing more than a group of well-intentioned religious do-gooders who mindlessly pursue their own fallen ideas about doing God’s will.
And it’s the ministry of the anointed word--the word that is empowered and set ablaze by the Spirit of God, which leads, protects and feeds the sheep. It is the word on fire that melts down strongholds. That’s where prayer comes in. We see the role of prayer as it relates to the word in Ephesians 6:19-20. Paul asks the believers in Ephesus, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” Notice that Paul is relying on prayer so that specific “words may be given to him.” That’s a strange request. Does anyone here believe Paul lacked for words? No! But he wanted people to pray so that God would give him HIS words—the supernaturally empowered words from God’s Spirit. Any number of people can get up and give a bible lesson that is clear, doctrinally sound, perhaps even interesting and relevant. But if that is all it is, it is incomplete--it lacks the supernatural element. It lacks that anointing which is present when the word comes right from the heart of God. Any teacher or preacher worth his salt spends long periods of time on his face before God crying out for his specific word for his people on a given occasion. That’s what separates an ordinary message from an anointed, power-filled word.
A.W. Tozer made a distinction between one who gives a word anointed by prayer and one who simply presents accurate theology. He categorizes the difference as being the difference between a scribe and a prophet. He says, “...the scribe tells us what he has read, and the prophet tells us what he has seen. The distinction is not an imaginary one. Between the scribe who has read and the prophet who has seen there is a difference as wide as the sea. We are overrun today with orthodox scribes, but the prophets where are they? The ...voice of the scribe sounds over evangelicalism, but the church waits for the tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil and has gazed with inward eye upon the wonder that is God.” The difference between a scribe and a prophet (aside from calling) is this—often the prophet has had the freedom to spend much time in prayer—receiving a word from God through intense study and prayer. Prayer is what allows the seed of the word to be watered with the Holy Spirit--that’s what produces fruit. Consequently, elders who are teaching, preaching, counseling or using the word in any other capacity need to be spending large amounts of time in prayer. C.H. Spurgeon, a phenomenally gifted preacher in the 1800’s knew the importance of prayer to the ministry of the Word. He used to like to take people on a tour of his church. One of the prominent locations was a large room in the basement where there were people praying constantly for him and the ministry of the word. He used to tell visitors that that room was the power generator of his ministry. Prayer, both the elder’s and that of intercessors are absolutely non-negotiable for the ministry of the word to be empowered.
Second, Paul indicates in Ephesians six that prayer allows the word to be proclaimed boldly, fearlessly. This is life-risking, God-exalting Holy Spirit boldness. This is way beyond simply the force of human personality. This boldness enables the speaker to, with the word, bore into the hearts of people and bring about repentance instead of simply informing their minds. That ministry of the Holy Spirit is only accomplished through much prayer. The apostles were well aware of that and when they were faced with choosing between ministering to the physical needs of the body or the ministry of the word and prayer, they followed their Master’s example and chose deacons who would free them up to do what they had been called to do. When that happened, the result was astronomical. Verse seven in Acts six says as a result of this, “The word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” This is the first time in the book of Acts that the term “increased rapidly” or “multiplied” is used. Don’t miss the connection between a liberated ministry of prayer and the word and increased fruitfulness in ministry. This text implies there was a large increase in fruitfulness in ministry because the apostles were able to devote their most and best energies to the ministry of the word and prayer. The fundamental purpose of the deacon ministry from Acts six is not to lead the church but to minister to the physical and material needs of the body so the eldership can devote themselves to the word and prayer.
What are some of these areas of deacon ministry? We could be here all day listing off potential ministries of deacons but they would include many crucial areas including things like: oversight of ushers, greeters and other volunteers, oversight of the benevolent ministry of the church, especially those people who are in need within the body of Christ, care of the widows and displaced, care over the building and property, care over visitation ministry and assimilation of new members, oversight of communion supplies, baptismal services, wedding preparations and hospitality needs. Those are only a few of the areas deacons can serve Christ in his church beautifully and they are absolutely essential for the ministry of Christ’s church to go forward. And they are no less important than the elder duties in the most important way. That is, the importance of any ministry is not measured by the specific task, but by the One to whom it is offered. The value of any ministry is determined by the One we do the ministry for, not the task itself. Paul affirms this in First Corinthians 10:31. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Whether you are preaching to millions or taking out the garbage, if it is done for Christ, it takes on infinite value. It’s not about the task, it’s about God. All the deacon ministries are very important and they need to be done well to glorify Christ. There are many questions that remain about the deacons such as, “who can serve as a deacon?” and “what are the qualifications?” We will take those up next time. May God raise up spiritually mature deacons in our midst who will enable the ministry of our church to magnify God.
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