Audio Library

This brief text describes the respective duties of people, elders, and deacons.  In studying these roles we will see Jesus: he is one who takes our needs to the Father, cares for the physical needs of God’s image bearers, and serves the spiritual needs of his children.

1. People Attended to with Equity (1,7)

First, notice that people’s needs are attended to with equity. As Jesus carries all of our needs to the Father, regardless of who we are, so we imitate his work by carrying people’s needs to the proper sources when we become aware of them. 

A. Numerous but not Numbers

This text begins and ends with a record of the Church’s numerical growth.  Verse 7 forms the conclusion for the first of what one author has called “six panels,” each of which covers about five years.[1]  Some estimate that the Church in Jerusalem at this stage is nearly ten thousand members strong.  We have now become accustomed in our study to the remark that the Church grew in numbers.  God makes his Church grow numerically.

At the same time you and I must see that while the Church was growing numerically, people were not viewed as numbers.  Members of the Church became aware that a segment of this large congregation was being neglected—the Greek-speaking widows.  It is key to note that it was the membership surveying itself which discovered the neglect.  They had realized that it was their duty to exercise mercy and to make sure that everyone in the Church was being properly cared for.  They took responsibility to bring the matter to the Apostles’ attention. 

Every member of the Church is responsible for every other member.  We are called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  We are a family, and no healthy member of any family ever says about another member, “their problems are of no concern to me.”  Each of us can do at least one of three things when we become aware of a need in the life of one of our fellow believers:  we can meet it ourselves, we can pray about it, and/or we can take the need to our officers.

B. Different but not Dismissed

Luke says in Acts 2:5 that the Jews had come from all parts of the Dispersion to live in Jerusalem.[2]  Pious Jews wished to live out their final days in Jerusalem and be buried there.[3]  That means that there was a sizeable number of Jews in Jerusalem who spoke Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic.  They had their own Greek-speaking synagogues and read the Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew Scriptures.  These linguistic and cultural disparities carried over into the Church. 

We are not told why these widows were being overlooked for care.  It could have been several factors.  The widows may not have been able to express their needs as readily because of their language.  Or perhaps the Jewish Christians were concentrated on a different area so that their widows’ needs came to the Apostles more easily than did the Greek widows’ because they were farther away.  Most likely it was because of prejudice.  The tensions between the Hellenists and the Hebrews is well known.  The Hebrews thought the Hellenists were less pure and the Hellenists thought the Hebrews were narrow-minded.[4]  Now that the Hellenists were on the Hebrews’ home turf, the Hebrews had opportunity to abuse them by passive aggression.  They were different and did not like each other. 

However, these disparities provide no excuse for the membership ministering to one another.  The essence of the Gospel is reconciliation (2 Co. 5), which involves breaking down the “dividing walls” of ethnicity and gender to show the world what true unity is.  That means that we must be proactive in gaining insight into the people who make up the Church in order to know their needs.  We cannot simply dismiss them because they are different.  

The Apostles, Hebrew Jews, move to action immediately.  Notice they did not take time even to pray.  There are some issues so clear from God’s Word they do not need to be prayed about. 

II. Elders Attend to Word and Sacrament (2,4)

The second role we observe is that of spiritual shepherds representing Jesus’ attention to the souls of his people.  That function belongs officially but not exclusively to the ministers and elders of the Church.  The Bible gradually transfers the responsibilities of the twelve Apostles for attending the Word and worship to the ministers and elders of local churches.  Therefore, the way we see these Apostles acting is instructive for people and elders. 

A. Redemptive Complaints

Let us first look more particularly at the way elders and congregations should deal with “complaints” since that word is used here.  I say a lot about complaining from the pulpit, not because we have a lot of it in this church (we really do not) but because I know that if a complaining spirit is allowed to grow up in a church, it quickly destroys it.  But I want you to see from this passage that there are times when members of a congregation must complain.  I want you to see four characteristics of a good complaint. 

  • First, it is unselfish. These church members were not concerned for themselves but rather for people who could not speak for themselves. 
  • Secondly, it is redemptive. They are concerned for a group of people they know occupy a special place in God’s heart.  If their situation is not helped, the Gospel’s message will suffer setback. 
  • Thirdly, they did not go to anyone else but the elders of the church. When you spread complaint to others, you help the devil in his work; however, when you take it to the elders, you make it the problem of authorities who can do something about it and they have to answer to God for it. 
  • Finally, notice the elders listened. Elders must always listen whether they do anything with your complaint or not.  They must represent God in hearing your complaint and answer with a yes, no, or wait.  Sometimes as in this case they will need to move on your complaint immediately.  At other times your complaint is selfish so they will need to absorb it in order to preserve you and/or the church from judgment.  And still other times, they will have to urge patience because a situation cannot be changed immediately.  In other words, they are called to be wise and gentle shepherds like Jesus the Chief Shepherd.

B. Real Shepherds

Upon affirming that the complaint is valid, they make the policy decision to create an office which is dedicated to the care of the needy.  Then they ask the people to nominate  those officers.  It was the Apostles’ final prerogative to approve the men put forward by prayer and ordination.  In a nutshell, that is the system of government the Church is called to exercise today.  Christ gives power to the people of the Church, which they delegate to their officers.  Ours is a representative form of government.  The people put forward candidates for elder and deacon, but those candidates must be finally approved by the elders.  The elders must listen to the needs of the people and make policy decisions for their care.  Sometimes those policies will be popular and sometimes not, but those decisions are delegated to the elders.  And when they disagree, they have the right of appeal all the way to the General Assembly. 

The selection of these men was to free the Apostles to do their primary task.  If they were taken away from Word ministry and consumed with distributing funds and food, then the Church would become spiritually anemic.

III.  Deacons Attend to Tables (3,5,6)

Finally, we come to the real focus of this passage, which is the appointment of deacons.  Deacons represent Jesus’ care for the physical conditions of people when he lived on earth.  Deacons help us to carry on that merciful ministry.  Although Luke does not call them deacons, these men perform the functions delegated to deacons elsewhere in the New Testament (Ph. 1:1; 1 Ti. 3:8-13) and the early Church regarded these men as the first deacons.

A. Widows

The first thing we are to realize is that the deacons’ primary task is to take care of widows.  Widows were not only singled out in the Old Testament for care, they are so in the New Testament as well.  Specific regulations are given for the care and activities of widows (1 Ti. 5).  James even says that the essence of true religion is in part to care for widows (Ja. 2).

B. Unsaved

Another requirement for deacons is to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.  The need for wisdom is obvious because they handle funds and deal with complex needs.  They need wisdom to go about their work in a systematic way and be good stewards of the people’s money.  But why do they need to be full of the Spirit?  We have learned that to be full of the Spirit refers to the faithfulness and power of one’s testimony.  Deacons need to be full of the Spirit because they are not merely called to dole out material resources; they are called to do so in the name of Jesus.  They must be men who know, love, and share the Gospel with enthusiasm.

C. Poor

It is important to recognize that this office was formed to help the poor in the church.  Later the New Testament reveals that they were charged to seek out and minister to the poor outside the Church as well. Calvin taught that he waited on three tables:  the table of the poor, the table of the minister (or the physical needs of the ministry), and the table of the Lord (in the Reformed Church deacons have historically assisted in serving the Lord’s Supper).

Jesus has given us these appointed officers’ roles in the church as a way to care for the congregation both spiritually and physically. It is a demonstration of Jesus’ love that he gave us these offices to nourish and build up the body of Christ. Praise God for his gracious supply for us his beloved church!

 

[1] C.H. Turner, “Chronology of the New Testament,” Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, v.1, 421-23.

[2] The NIV says they were “staying” in Jerusalem as if they were only visiting.  But the participle is katoikountes, which refers to permanent settlement.

[3] Kistemaker quoting Everett Harrison, 80.

[4] Bruce, Acts, 120n.