Committed to Ministry
Acts 6:1 – 7
Committed to Ministry
The danger of disunity
Well it had to happen didn’t it, when we left the early church last week, things were so good! Luke, the author tells us, all the believers were one in heart and mind, and they were holding so loosely to the things of this world and so confident in God’s sovereignty and provision that, from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Ah, the good old days!
But now, while the apostles are preaching the good news of Jesus fearlessly in the temple and in house after house, discontent has crept in among the believers.
The Grecian Jews, that is those Jews who spoke Greek, complained against the Aramaic-speaking believers from Jerusalem, because the Greek-speaking widows were missing out in the daily distribution of food.
Remember, Christians were selling houses and land in order that people’s daily needs would be taken care of and well, some are missing out.
It’s not an insignificant issue, not only because there’s no Centrelink, or Widows’ Pension or anything, but also because the church knew that right through the Old Testament God had impressed on his people the importance of caring for those in need, particularly people like widows who had no means of providing for themselves.
So this is no trivial matter, you could even say the care of widows was one of God’s pet projects, an area of particular concern, but as it happens, this was also a matter that has the potential to derail the mission of the church.
The week before Easter we saw Satan’s attempt to stamp out the ministry of the church, by persecution and opposition.
The message of Jesus’ victory over sin and death won the day.
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
And then last week we saw Satan trying to corrupt the church from the inside. Ananias, Peter said, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit
But even that attempt by Satan to stifle the message of the gospel failed. more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
And so having tried persecution and failed, and having tried corruption and failed, the threat Satan now throws at the church is the threat of distraction.
I know a number of people who devote their lives, to promoting the welfare of Christians who are persecuted for their faith. I’ve spoken before about the Barnabas Fund and Voice of the Martyrs, two organisations seeking to care for persecuted Christians. I’d encourage you to find out more about those organisations and how you can be a part of the very important work they’re doing.
I also know people who devote their time and energy and expertise, to preserving the integrity and reputation of the church, and by extension, the reputation of the gospel of Jesus. They want to save the church from the hypocrisy and deceit that we saw in Ananias and Sapphira.
So we’ve got Christian leaders concerned for those facing persecution,
Christian leaders concerned for the integrity of the church,
But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s told me they’ve devoted their life to making sure other Christians don’t get distracted from the ministry for which God has equipped them!, Never met anyone who sees their primary ministry, as helping other people say no to things!
“Welcome to Clayton Fopp Ministries, we help you say ‘No’!
And while I’m sort of, poking fun at it, the threat to the ministry of the gospel, the consequences, for the people of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, are just as severe, if we’re being distracted from the ministries for which God has equipped us, as if we’re being persecuted from the outside or white-anted from the inside.
The apostles didn’t think it was right to take on additional responsibilities that would distract them from their primary ministry, the ministry of the Word.
They knew that that would be a backward step for the gospel.
But if they don’t do anything, all the ministry of the church will be undermined.
Disunity is incredibly destructive.
Even today, disunity among God’s people hinders the work of the gospel.
A little while ago a church in the US disintegrated from the inside, relationships broke down,
It went through months of litigation, disputes over property.
The name of Jesus was rubbished in the newspapers because of it.
The destruction of that church started at a church dinner, when one elder was served a smaller piece of meat than was given to the child seated next to him.
That church no longer exists.
Disunity is destructive.
It’s been said that a fractured church is rarely a missionary church, and I think that’s exactly right.
And speaking of being missionary, The number one cause of overseas missionaries leaving the field early is the breakdown of relationships with other missionaries.
Disunity drains Christians, we’re so busy shoring up our own position, we’ve got no energy left to spend where it’s needed.
Think of our own situation here at Trinity,
We’re still finding our way,
We’ve got our fingers in so many pies trying to keep things rolling along,
We’re relying significantly on personal relationships and people’s graciousness.
If, all of a sudden these 2 people stopped talking,
Or this group of people start resenting, that group.
If someone says “I’m going to stop contributing because I don’t like the music, or the paint job, of the preacher, or something”, Imagine the impact that would have on our church.
It would take the wind right out of our sails, wouldn’t it?
Disunity needs to be dealt with, or the church’s mission is hampered.
And what the Apostles want in Acts 6, is for the right people to focus on the right ministry.
The right people in the right ministry
For the apostles to deal with this new need themselves, would mean setting aside the task that Jesus himself had given them.
It would mean being disobedient to Jesus.
There are lots of ways we can communicate God’s love to people, Lots of ways we can show people they’re valued,
But the only way for people to know that their sins can be forgiven,
That they can have peace with God,
That Jesus died for them when they were rebelling against God, is for someone to tell them!
That’s the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 10, how can they hear without someone preaching to them
So if the apostles stop telling people the good news about Jesus in order to do these other things, eventually there’ll be no one left to care for anyway, because without being fed from God’s Word, the church will die.
I’ve mentioned somewhere recently, I can’t remember whether it was here or in Strathalbyn, Francis of Assisi, in the 13th Century, who, now is supposed to have said, “preach the gospel, and if necessary use words”, which he almost certainly didn’t say, but what he did say is that out of all the things that happen when God’s people meet together, the one thing you don’t want to miss out, is the sermon.
The apostles were called to be witnesses. They were to testify, they were to witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and so as not to be distracted from that ministry, they say we will appoint whoever the church nominates to make sure everyone is being cared for.
That suggestion seems like a good one to the church and they nominate the 7 men whose names are listed there in verse 5.
The apostles lay hands on them, signifying entrusting to these 7 this work of social care and provision.
And so the apostles continue in their ministry of prayer and preaching, and we’re told, verse 7, the Word of God spread.
Let me make three observations from this really, quite brief episode, and then we’ll spend some time thinking about what this looks like today.
They’re all Greek to me
First of all, the names of these 7 are extraordinarily significant. If you’re like me, when you get to a list of names in the Bible, you probably just skip over to the next verse or the next page.
“ And so and so begat somebody else and someone else again and, and then Jesus went into Jerusalem and started teaching.” That’s more my thing!
But we need to resist that temptation. The names of these 7 men are all Greek names, so we understand that they came from among the Grecian Jews, the ones who had been complaining, not the ones who had been better looked after.
The church doesn’t say, “well we’ve chosen three Greeks, three Hebrews, and a bloke from Rome as a tie-breaker!”
If you’re sick of hearing in the news about factions and election tickets and voting blocks, look at how the Spirit-filled community of God’s people works!
They are the ones whose community had been missing out, so they are the ones who are most able to resolve the situation.
They’re not picked because of party tickets, or back room deals, They’re chosen because it’s obvious to the whole church that God has equipped them for this ministry. They were all full of the Spirit and wisdom.
How refreshing, in our era of compromise, and conflicting agendas, to see people chosen purely because they are the people God has equipped for the task.
God equips his people for ministry
Which leads into point 2, God equips all his people for ministry.
For some, that’s “proclamation” ministry, like the Apostles, like others in our community who proclaim the gospel message as it’s been handed down to us from the apostles. But others, in Acts 6 and today, God equips for other ministries,
The practical ministries,
The meeting of physical needs,
Providing food for others, administration, caring for children, raising children, the list is endless.
All Christians are equipped for ministries through which we serve God and his people.
When John Stott was in Adelaide in 2002 he told the story of a woman who was converted under the ministry of the Evangelist Gypsy Smith. This woman wrote to Gypsy Smith afterwards, and told him she felt called to become a preacher, but she saw a potential problem. She had twenty children! How could she ever find the opportunity to be a preacher when she had 20 children?!
Gypsy Smith wrote back and said to this woman, "How thankful to God you must be, that he has not only called you to be a preacher, but he has given you a congregation as well!"
There is not one ministry, but lots of ministries.
And interestingly, Luke very carefully records the language, The Apostles actually speak about the ministry of tables, and the ministry of the Word, it’s a little obscured in the NIV translation as they try and get their words around that idea of waiting on tables, but it’s the diakoneō word, serving, ministry, the ministry of the Word and the ministry of tables.
They are both, along with an almost inexhaustible list of other ministries, ministries for which God equips his people.
We do ourselves a dis-service when we talk about someone going into “the ministry”, when what we mean is, they’re going into a pastoral ministry, being a pastor and teacher.
And as someone who’s in pastoral ministry, it’s my experience, that when someone goes into pastoral ministry, it generally means they’ve got to stop a whole bunch of other ministries they’ve been involved in up until that point,
The ministry of quiet witnessing and gentle evangelism in the workplace, that has to stop if you go into pastoral ministry!
There’s not too many non-Christians on the Trinity staff team for me to be sharing the gospel with!
Lots of people have to scale back the ministry of financially supporting gospel work, particularly if they’re going of to college for 3 years.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think we should be encouraging everybody who God has gifted in the right ways to move in to full time pastoral ministry, simply because going into pastoral ministry is a great way of being available for us in God’s harvest field, but let’s not call it “the ministry”, which denigrates all the other ministries that God’s people do and for which he equips them.
Other ministries aren’t excluded
And thirdly, just because these 7 are set apart by the apostles to minister to people’s practical needs, that doesn’t mean they’re prevented from taking part in other ministries as opportunities arise.
We don’t hear anything more in the New Testament about any of these 7 men, except for Stephen and Philip, who go on to have significant opportunities to tell people about Jesus in very public settings.
Stephen in the very next chapter defends the Christian faith before the religious leaders, just like the apostles did. He gives an amazing theological summary of the history of God’s people in the Old Testament.
So a focus on one area of ministry need not exclude other opportunities as God gives them.
What does it look like for us?
So let’s have a think about some application.
What does this look like for us? Remove it from the very clear cut distinction between the Apostles, who had been commissioned by Jesus for their ministry, and then on the other hand the wider church which included much more recent converts from around the world,
Bring it into our context, how do we apply this same sort of thinking to people like you and me, fellow Christians who are involved in different areas of ministry.
Well, one of the things we’ve been encouraging people to do over the last couple of weeks, is to think about what areas of ministry in our church they might like to get involved in.
In a church like ours there’s a whole range of ministries that need people in them, setting up, packing up, music, looking after kids, preparing meals, running evangelistic Bible studies, the list is endless.
We’ve said people can go online and fill in the form on the web, or grab the yellow forms from up the back and indicate which areas they’d like to be involved in.
But it seems to me, that Acts chapter 6 has something to say to us, about how we get involved in ministry, about what things we put our hands up for.
I think for me, the temptation is to get involved in ministry based on 2 considerations, preference and convenience.
What would I prefer to do?
And what’s convenient for me to do?
What’s the sort of ministry I can actually see myself enjoying?
And what ministry is going to fit in pretty nicely around my existing commitments and lifestyle.
Now, I’m not saying for a moment that we shouldn’t enjoy whatever ministry we’re in, that the only worthwhile ministry is one that makes you miserable, and I’m not saying we should turn our backs on all our previous commitments. The apostles didn’t turn their backs on their previous commitments.
But Acts chapter 6 suggests our ministry involvement should be based on something more than preference and convenience.
Maybe some better questions are, what will contribute to the mission of the church?
What has God equipped me for?
Where can I serve now, not necessarily forever, but for a season, like Stephen and Philip, who we know moved into significantly different roles.
How has God gifted me in ways that could be of benefit to the church? So when it comes to filling in the form, don’t do it on your own, sit down with someone who knows you, someone in your family?
And ask them: Do you think I should do this?
Is this a ministry that God’s equipped me for?
I heard this week of a world famous Cambridge professor, who taught Sunday school in his local church.
The list of honours after his name made it pretty obvious that God had equipped him to teach, and so he had chosen to serve in that area.
What we must never do, is think, “well the important ministry is what Clayton does, and everything else is just extra”
As an old boss of mine used to say, “the worst mistake in the church is to think that ministers minister and congregations congregate” That’s rubbish!
The question we should be asking ourselves is how can we free each other up to make the most of the different opportunities we all face to serve other people and lift up the name of Jesus, that is, to speak of the impact he has on our lives,
How do we ensure we’re not distracted from whatever ministry it is that God has given us, for which he equips each us?
The opportunities you have will be different to the ones I have. And the question I need to ask is how can I help you, and equip you to make the most of your opportunities? Ephesians 4:12, the role of the pastor-teacher is to prepare the saints, that’s you, for works of service. And “service” there is that same word for “ministry” as in Acts chapter 6. The role of the pastor is to prepare you for the ministry for which God equips you. Whatever that may be.
Some of you will know of David Cook, Principal of the Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He was preaching at Trinity Hills 4 or 5 years ago, and he said “the main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing”.
Caring for the widows is good, it’s important to God, but for the Apostles, it’s not the main thing. For someone else it might be the main thing, and their faithfulness in that is as pleasing to God as the apostle’s faithfulness in their ministry.
So let me ask you, what do you think is your main thing?
At one level that’s easy, it’s seeking honour and glory for Jesus.
But more specifically, more day to day,
What is your ministry priority?
What is it that God has equipped you for?
What is the thing that under God it seems is the very best thing you can do in the kingdom of God?
What is the thing for which your brothers and sisters around you, including me, can help you prepare.
It’s quite possibly not even something that happens under the Trinity banner.
The single best way that you can promote the gospel might be for you to offer to pray for people in your workplace. If you’ve never tried it, you might be blown away by people’s willingness to be prayed for.
And that might be the number one way of impacting someone’s life, of opening the door for a gospel conversation, and in fact you might not be the person who has the conversation, there might be another Christian at work who’s much better at answering people’s questions than you, but what you can do is give your workmates reasons to ask.
If you’re a parent, the main thing from which you never want to be distracted could quite possibly be, being a godly model to your children. I recently heard a “stay at home mum” re-define her role. She is now a “discipler of eternal souls”. Sounds like a pretty important job!
You might be a pray-er, and so I want to encourage you to keep at that ministry, pray for this community, pray for God’s people around the world, pray for our leaders, for our families, for the marriages within this community, Don’t be distracted from that ministry.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that we don’t ever try anything new! Presumably these 7 men in Acts had been doing other ministries before they moved into this ministry, that’s how the church knew that they were full of the Spirit and wisdom,
So the point is not that we shouldn’t change ministries or try new ministries to explore what opportunities God might be opening up for us, but to assess, to consider, is this new possibility a distraction from the ministry that God has equipped me for and led me into?
And if it is, think, who can I think of, who might be just busting to serve God in this way, and then go and talk to them.
Having weathered the storm, the disunity and the potential distraction, the church in Acts returns to what should be its normal state, and what will be its normal state when each member is focussed on the main thing. The church grows.
The Word is preached.
The natural out-flowing of the Word carries over into people’s lives, and the attractiveness of the gospel is visible to all.
That’s what happens when we keep the main thing the main thing.