God is a God of symmetry, harmony, and order. As such, the church which is the Body of Christ must reflect this order—not merely for the smoothest and most maximized usefulness to the furtherance of His kingdom, but to present clear testimony to a watching world that the God we serve produces unity and purposeful organization free from pettiness. As God’s work in the creation week took His initial, unformed creation and produced a beautifully lavish and precise world (which even then would require the active dominion of man to bring out of it all the good God placed in it), so His creation of the church as a unified Body under one Head would require a structure and pattern to enlarge its effectiveness and beauty. Acts 6 demonstrates how the first church responded to God’s call to properly order His church, and the blessings that flow from that orderliness.
A. The Problem (vv. 1-2)
Chapter 6 follows seamlessly from Chapter 5. It is during this time—when the apostles went everywhere and did not cease to proclaim Jesus was the Messiah (5:42)—that “the disciples were increasing” (6:1). Recall that many thousands of people, possibly numbering 20,000 or more, have surrendered themselves to the Lord’s Christ and thus accepted His terms of pardon. Obviously a good portion of these people were saved on the Day of Pentecost (surely some stayed in Jerusalem after their salvation, at least for the short-term). But beyond them many others have come to Christ, and with multiplied, displaced, persecuted and alienated people, extreme needs are also multiplying. Obviously the apostles had determined some kind of daily food distribution—perhaps purchased with the money from chapter 5, perhaps donated—was necessary at this point.
That the distribution is specifically targeted to widows is intentional. In the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East, women’s value and protection was tied to their relationship with male relatives, particularly fathers and husbands. A married woman was considered under the authority and protection of her husband, and even if they lived in the same household as her parents (as sometimes happened), the primary responsibility for her provision fell on her husband, not her father. As such, if a woman was widowed, she had no secure means of protection, provision, and sustenance. It is this practical reason why Paul insists widows only be supported by the church if they are past a certain age, without adult children and when it is unlikely they can remarry and enjoy provision from a godly husband (1 Timothy 5:9-10; he specifically commands that younger widows remarry if possible, as otherwise they may be lit. “alienated from Christ,” v. 11; cf. vv. 14-15). Even prior to this apostolic, inspired rule, the church still manifested its concern for those women who had no one else to help them.
We see the ethnic and cultural diversity of the church as well, for the dispute was specifically between the Hellenistic Jews (those Jews from the Diaspora who were Greek in culture and language; many of them had been in Jerusalem at Pentecost) and the “Hebrews”—the native Israelis who lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew. They were Jewish racially and culturally. Evidently the Hellenistic Jews felt their widows were not being cared for in the serving of food, perhaps because the thoroughly Hebraic apostles were perceived as favoring their own widows. Here is one satanic attack on the infant church—seeking to incite division, resentment, and discord over ethnic issues. This kind of conflict would destroy the testimony of the church as a unified New Humanity under a risen Jewish Messiah.
The second problem is if the Apostles—who are the dispensers of revelation, the de facto leaders of the church, the preachers and shepherds—neglect the ministry of the Word to directly serve the widows, that good thing in itself would invert God’s ordained priorities for leadership. You can see this in the text: The Apostles insist they cannot leave “the word of God” to serve tables. What happens when they follow through on this? “The word of God kept on spreading, and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem” (v. 7). On this point, John Piper says: “the Word of God kept spreading and bearing fruit because the apostles did not make the strategic mistake of leaving their focus on the word to fix a pressing problem. The major threat to the [Christian] movement, Luke teaches us, is whatever threatens the ministry of the Word.”
So how can the Apostles respond to these two threats in a way that will free the church to be useful, fruitful, and advancing the kingdom of the risen Christ? The answer the text gives is a wise one: delegation. It is to that we now turn.
B. The Plan (vv. 3-6)
As shepherds, elders are to be very involved in the life of the congregation. The Apostles, though not elders in the technical sense, were no different. Still, God clearly had priorities for them in ministry that required a single-minded focus on the ministry of the Word of God (“devote ourselves” in v. 4 is the same word for “continually devoted” in 2:42, the false convert Simon “continuing” with Paul in 8:13, and being “devoted” to prayer in Romans 12:12. It speaks of persistence, perseverance, and giving oneself to something). So, to preserve this priority, they asked the congregation to select seven qualified men who could be in charge of service ministries. Here is the Apostles’ willingness to recognize priorities, but also their own limitations; were they to focus on serving the widows, the ministry of the Word would be compromised, and likely the widows would not be served well because as the de facto leaders of the church the Apostles would have many other things to do atop sense of guilt for compromising their preaching and teaching ministry. Better to recognize what God has gifted and enabled you to do, and throw all your energy into dong that with His blessing and empowerment, then doing everything outside of His will and all of it poorly. Further, it is likely these seven men would have been in charge of all service ministry, not merely the widows’ food distribution. Only this kind of comprehensive delegation would have truly freed the Apostles for undistracted focus.
The congregation approved of the Apostles’ recommendation, so they chose seven men out of the thousands available to head the service ministries of the church. That all of the men had Greek names is significant; since it was Greek Jews who were the ones bringing up criticisms, it seems fitting as well as deferential for the congregation to pick and the Apostles to affirm Greek Jews for leadership. We know very little about these men. Only Stephen and Philip are mentioned again. Stephen of course is the first martyr, and Philip enjoyed a fruitful evangelistic ministry, as well as the legacy of four godly daughters with a prophetic ministry to individuals in the Caesarean church (Acts 8:5-8, 26-40; 21:8-9). Nicolas was a Gentile proselyte to Judaism who then became a Christian. The choice of these men demonstrates several things about the early church. First, they had proper priorities—they wanted the ministry of the Word and prayer to continue, and they wanted servant-leaders who were wise and characterized by Spirit-filling. Further, they desired unity; the Lord is conquering the ethnic bickering that started the narrative and now Grecian Jews are receiving the opportunity to minister to the whole church. Fruitful prayer and teaching, the needy members of the church being cared for in love, and doing so with truly spiritual leaders is most important to the early church.
With divine wisdom and common sense, the church has managed to avoid another satanic threat. What are the effects of this organization? We see them in the final point.
C. The Produce (v. 7)
Because the Apostles can focus entirely on the study and proclamation of the Word and Spirit-led prayer, God honors their devotion. He blesses the prayer and preaching with overwhelming receptivity among the people. We see this in two parts. First, we are told the Word kept spreading. At the least, this means more and more people heard the gospel message, proclaimed by the Apostles and others. It is interesting that the same word for “increase greatly” referring to the numbers of new believers is also used in 12:24 of the word itself. A similar idea though a different word is used in 19:20. What is the connection? Because the gospel specifically, and the Word of God in general, is the “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), where it goes, new believers are made. The idea is the Word, as understood, surrendered to, and obeyed, is spreading. God is present in His Word and is decisively drawing new learners of Jesus to Himself. But the Word does this in saved people too; in Acts 19, the context is the Ephesian believers—who had been saved at least a year, if not more—burning their magic books in public to declare a total break with their old life. Luke then says, “So the Word of God was growing mightily and prevailing” (v. 20, emphasis mine). The Word does not “grow” in Acts without conquering. Where it spreads, it has the victory. Sometimes that is in unsaved people yielding themselves to the reigning Christ. Sometimes that is in the sanctification and fruitfulness of already-saved people. In any event, when the Word is understood, surrendered to, and obeyed, it has already prevailed, and God is glorious thereby.
Second, Acts 6:7 tells us the produce not only from the viewpoint of the Word but from the numbers of people who responded. That these people were surrendered, baptized disciples is clear (Mathew 28 makes it clear the NT church did not consider someone a disciple unless they had been baptized upon confession of faith and were being faithfully taught to obey Christ; Acts 2 reiterates this). But what is most interesting is now the Messiah is calling men to Himself who are full-time Jewish priests. Those who were at the heart of the religious system which executed Him are now becoming His loyal sons.
For the church to accomplish its divinely-appointed mission in the face of satanic opposition, each believer must respond appropriately to the sphere in which God places them. Church organization is key to this. If done wisely and Scripturally, it results in the blessing of God and a powerfully advancing church that makes an unmistakable and enduring impact for the kingdom.