By Simon ManchesterSunday 4 Dec 2016Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 14 minutes
We are following, on these Sunday mornings, the Book of Acts. We are seeing the acts of the Lord Jesus – what He did in the 1st Century and the principles for every century.
The wonderful thing that we have noticed, as we have studied this Book together, is that the Lord Jesus can take the good things and the bad things and bring them together for the spread of the Good News. So we saw, for example, that a lame man was healed and this created a preaching opportunity. Then we saw that the Apostles were imprisoned and this created a preaching opportunity. We saw the early Church, in its generosity, create a caring fellowship then we saw a couple who were dishonest, and God used that to create a more serious fellowship.
So we see the Lord Jesus weaving the good and the bad for the spread of His purposes. And, without ever condoning the evil, He masters the things that are going on.
Now our Chapter today – Acts Chapter 6 – records a crucial decision made by the early Church, which God greatly blessed in spreading the Gospel. And it also records for us an evil decision made by the opposition to the Church, which God, in His sovereignty used for the spread of the Church.
So I wonder if you would turn to Chapter 6, Verse 1 of Acts. In the first seven verses, there is a key ministry – that is, the ministry of the Word and prayer, which is defended. And then in Verses 8-15, there is a key mission that is attacked. There is opposition to Stephen, as you know, which gets very hot. Now both of these – the decision to defend the Word and prayer, and the decision to attack the mission… both of them are used by God to spread. That’s the sovereign power of God.
So, first of all, let’s look at the key ministry, defended: Acts, Chapter 6, Verses 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. Something threatens the early Church, you see, in a time of great growth. And the threat this time is not persecution, nor is it heresy. It’s not from the outside persecution. It’s not from the inside heresy. It is the danger of being distracted or diverted from what gives health to the Church. The temptation here is to give-up key ministry. And you will see in Acts 6, Verse 1, that its people who have a Greek background say that those with a Hebrew background are making life difficult for those widows of a Greek background (in the daily distribution). You may remember in Acts Chapter 4, Verse 32, that the early Church pooled their resources. And they pooled their resources so that nobody in the fellowship would be needy. This was a ministry to the family. This was not a social programme. And their money was put at the feet of the Apostles, and it was distributed to the fellowship.
And now the Greek converts (what we would call the Greek immigrants of the Church are saying that the Hebrew converts (that is what we would call the residents of the Church) are giving these Greek widows a bad deal. And so the Apostles in Chapter 6 Verse 2 call the first annual general meeting. It must have been a huge first meeting. And they make this famous and this crucial decision, which says – we must not neglect the Word of God for the ministry of tables. Isn’t that interesting? They don’t say, ‘We must not neglect the ministry for something secular’. They say: we must not neglect this ministry for that ministry. And they don’t, of course, say that it is beneath them to wait on tables. They have been taught by the Lord Jesus to wash feet.
Now they have learned a vital priority, these Apostles, and that is that the Church lives by the Word of God. Jesus says that: man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that precedes from the mouth of God… the Apostles believe Him. So they know that if they neglect the Word, it will effectively kill the Church.
I am sure I don’t need to tell you this morning, that the Word of God and the health of the person, or the Church, or an individual go very much hand-in-hand. When a person loves the Word of God and lives the Word of God, it is pretty obvious. You see the spiritual health of that person. When a person doesn’t love the Word of God and doesn’t live the Word of God, you know after a while, you see the effects. There isn’t spiritual vitality in that person. A man may, for example, be nobody special in the world, but if he loves the Word and if he lives the Word, he is likely to grow into a spiritual oak. A man may be a heavy-weight in the world, but if he neglects the Word, he will increasingly be a spiritual sapling, if not a twig. A Church, as you know, may have no fancy building, or music, or even a great crowd, but if it loves to hear the Word and do the Word, it is almost certainly a Church with some life and some heat and some impact… whereas a Church may have all the signs of success – a very expensive building, great music – but if it has no respect for God’s Word, it becomes in the end just a façade. It becomes like that fig-tree that Jesus cursed because it was all leaves with no fruit.
And even a nation may be very poor economically, and weak, but very rich and very strong in Biblical faith and joy. Whereas a country may be, economically, very powerful yet spiritually infantile. It’s interesting to read that of all the global problems that are going on, I was reading that in parts of Europe, in fact in 17 countries within Europe and in Japan itself (where Christianity is long neglected or rejected, and self-interest has been rampant now for a couple of decades) one of the fruits of this self-interest in these countries is a birth-rate that has dropped now to 1.3 children in the family. And therefore, populations in these countries will effectively halve in the next 35 years. And many smart young people are seeing the writing on the wall and are leaving these countries, for countries that not only have a greater population in the under-35s but greater prospects. The Japanese death-rate last year was higher than the birth-rate. And people in Japan – from obstetricians to toy-manufacturers, to leaders of the labour-force, can see the damage around the corner.
This is reaping a post-Christian neglect, a post-Christian rejection and therefore the Word of God, you see, is not just some odd subject which gets studied in some quaint groups in old buildings like this. Nor is the Word of God some odd subject that can be studied at TAFE or something like that. The Word of God is the Word that gives life to the individual or the Church or the nation over the years.
And the Apostles in Acts 6 make this key decision that they will guard it and teach it and will not be distracted from the preparing (which involves prayer) and the preaching. And they won’t even be distracted to choose the seven to do the tables. They say in Verse 3 – you choose seven men for the administration of the tables – because they want to devote themselves to prayer and the Word.
I just want to remind you that there is a key to the health of the Church and the fellowship of the Church and the mission of the Church which requires people to be set aside for the work of praying, preparing and preaching. And if a minister who even knows this, but doesn’t do this, or if a small-group leader or a youth leader or a Sunday-school teacher knows that the real work is going to be done in the praying and the preparing… if the person, for some reason cannot or will not turn away from all the good things that could be done and should be done (like tables and needy people) and doesn’t do the work on the Word, it will cause the group to spiral downwards. Bad preparation brings shallow teaching. Shallow teaching brings weak Christians. Weak Christians bring pastoral problems. That requires more damage control, and so there is less time for preparation, and there is, therefore, more shallow teaching and weaker Christians and pastoral problems, and the spiral spirals downwards.
But careful preparation brings proper teaching and strong Christians and pastoral blessings, with shared ministries and people being pushed to the side, to do the work of praying and preparing and preaching. And even as I say this to you this morning – to know it is not the same as doing it – because I know this, and I am pressured and often fail to do it. And the congregation that wants to protect a leader or a pastor, and get them away to do the work of preparing and saying something worthwhile should pray that they will do it, and should be prepared to say to a person, if preaching is thin and badly prepared, and should not expect or want a few to run every issue, or expect every issue to be run past a few.
In a nutshell, the congregation will do what so many here do, which is to help the pastor do what he ought to do or to help the leader do what he ought to do, and not do what he ought not to do. And I am saying this to you this morning, because I want you to pray for me and for those who prepare in this Church – from the Sunday school, right through. Because life is full of detail and full of administration and full of distraction. And if you add to that, a personal weakness and a personal preference to do things which are easy, like emails and conversations and cups of coffee, and if you add to that a disposition not to do the hard things (and everybody here this morning knows how hard praying is) and how difficult Scripture study is, then what will happen is a senior pastor, especially, will end up like many of the Bishops in our city, who are being killed off for time and usefulness by the administration of their job. And the talks are suffering. And those who are wiser and stronger and freer will do the work of praying and preparing and will have something worthwhile saying on Sundays.
So I ask you to especially pray for this. Jesus had the strength to turn away from many great needs, to do the work of proclaiming the Kingdom. The Apostles have taken a leaf out of His book to turn away from very real needs, to do the work of praying and preparing, because they see that the food of the Church is the key to the health of the Church.
Now the consequence, in Verse 5, is that it pleased the whole group (that is a blessing, isn’t it). Nobody set them against anybody. Nobody blamed anybody. Nobody pointed the finger at anybody. They just agreed together, and they chose these seven men. And interestingly, the seven all have Greek-sounding names and there is therefore probably a very great sympathy or leaning toward the Greek end of the Church. And these seven were commissioned and began to do the ministry of the tables… not the sub-standard dog’s body job, but the ministry of caring for the widows in the Church. And the effect, in Verse 7, is that there is wide impact – the Word of God spread rapidly (in the original, excessively or violently, the Word spread) and there was also this deep effect, that a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. Now friends, when the priests become obedient to ‘the faith’, meaning the Christian faith, you know something has happened. When the real hard nuts, who had locked-in to their religion and their ritual and their temple and their sacrificial system, when they turn their whole back on it and walk off to be obedient to the Christian faith, you know that the Word of God has penetrated. This is this great blessing that comes from the decision to guard the ministry of prayer and the Word because the wide effect and the deep effect is very obvious.
Well, this is the secret, if I might put it… it’s an open secret, that people are to call to God for the work to be done, and they are to drill into the Word, and the Word is to be drilled into them for the work to be done and the impact is that there is a width and a depth that God works very wonderfully.
Now the Word of God is the key weapon in this. It is not one of the Apostles. Do you notice that the text doesn’t say, ‘But thankfully, John appeared’, or ‘Hurray… James came’ or ‘Three cheers, Peter arrived’. It is the Word of God that does this, and in the hands of somebody who is praying and preparing, the Word of God does its very great work. So we don’t need, as somebody has said, to find somebody who will bring the Bible to life. That is a great heresy to think that we must bring the Bible to life. It is the living Word of God. It is alive. It brings people to life. We don’t need to paint the Word of God. We don’t need to supplement it. We don’t need to force it. It is the food. It is the map. It is the light. And, if I might say this reverently, it is the life of the Church. It needs to be prayed over. It needs to be drilled into. It needs to be drilled into us. And then there is, under God’s hand, the blessing of width and depth. May God have mercy on me and all who fail in this priority which is so essential.
That is the key ministry defended. Now… good mission attacked.
We now know that Stephen is one of the deacons, one of the servants, one of the ministers of the tables. We know that he is martyred. We see that through the martyrdom of Stephen, the Lord spreads the Church. We see also that the Apostle Paul appears in Chapter 9, and he goes on journeys to spread the Gospel. But I want you to notice, interestingly about Stephen, that although he may be in charge of Church relief, that he does not fail to live out his faith. We see in Verse 8 that the Lord does signs and wonders through him.
Alec Motyer says, ‘A wonder grabs attention and sign points clearly’. And so this wonder and sign are to arrest the mind and them form the mind, and then get a person to start taking Jesus seriously. And of course, you see in Verse 10, that Stephen was also speaking, at least once the opposition arose. And he was asked, to give some explanation of what he was believing, and so he began to speak.
So the Apostles stuck at the work of the Word (and everything else was secondary), and Stephen was going to stick at the ministry of the tables, but he didn’t neglect to be a witness.
Now I want to ask why he was so violently attacked. Why is it that this opposition came up and began to argue with him, then found false witnesses to speak against him, and then they seized him, and then they took him to trial, and eventually they stoned him. Why are they so violently opposed to Stephen? And does it matter? Should we care two hoots?
Stephen died for what he believed. It is obvious that what he was convicted about was more important than, say, sports results. The people who attacked him wanted him dead for what he believes. And Luke gives us 68 verses (a great huge slab of his book) on Stephen… so it must be important. And we want to ask the question, what is this violent opposition all about? And the answer is that he is being accused of preaching against the law and the temple. You see this in Verse 13. This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place and the law.
Almost certainly, he is echoing the Lord Jesus. And the Lord Jesus was also accused of attacking the law and the temple. When Jesus spoke of the temple, do you remember he said that He was greater than the temple? And He also said that His body was a temple, which, if it were destroyed, He would raise in three days. And they assumed that He was talking about the building and then went on to falsely accuse Him of wanting to destroy it.
Now Jesus did not speak against the temple building. He just said that He had come to replace it or to supersede it or to fulfil it. He didn’t speak against the law. He spoke about the law as a summary. He said He had come to fulfil the law. But He didn’t speak against the law; He said that He had come to fulfil it. One commentator puts it like this, ‘Does the morning sun fight against the street-lights of the night before?’ And the answer, of course, is that the morning sun does not fight against the street-lights of the night before. The morning sun just effortlessly makes them redundant. It just effortlessly appears and supersedes and replaces the street-lights. The Lord Jesus comes and replaces the place where the Jews met God and become the place where people can meet God. And He replaces the law in the sense that He fulfils it and He becomes the place where a person can place themselves in His perfect obedience and His wonderful death… and find safety from the terrors of the law, because He is the Saviour of the world.
This is almost certainly what Stephen echoed, but it infuriated the opposition, because when you take away the traditions of people (and religious hostility is always the worst hostility of all) and you leave a person exposed to the God who confronts, huge hostility comes up. And that’s why Stephen is so violently attacked because he is appearing to remove the tradition and to confront people with the God of the Scriptures. That’s why Acts 6 is such an interesting Chapter because it begins in the first half with a defence of the Word, and then it ends in the second half with a terrible attack on the Word… Because if you are going to be a person who believes the Word and promotes the Word, there will be a backlash. Now we have no choice. If we are going to imitate the Lord Jesus… if we are going to imitate the Apostles… we are going to seek to defend and promote the Word of God because it is the way of wide and deep blessing. We do not have any choice. Now we have to ask the second question… whether we can step into the second half of Acts 6 and be like Stephen, who is prepared to defend and promote the Word of God to the point of suffering.
I want to finish with this as we close. Why is it that in the Western world, there is a huge priority on self-advancement and self-preservation and a slipping away almost entirely of Christian beliefs. And why is it, that in the Scriptures and history, and in so many other parts of the world, there is not such a priority on self-advancement and self-preservation … and a strong, joyful, faithful grasp of Christian beliefs? Is it possible that we have been sold a dummy and that by being told that we should be committed primarily to self-promotion and self-preservation, we are therefore going to lose our beliefs? And is it possible, that those who have rightly given-up the pursuit of self-promotion and self-preservation, will faithfully and joyfully not only hold, but promote, and see the wide and deep blessing of the Christian Gospel?
Which direction do you think we are going? That’s the question. And Acts 6 sets the model of a very wonderful direction.