Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers
1. Discrimination (6:1)
2. Discernment (6:2-4)
a. Three Requirements for Deacons (6:2-3)
b. Two Priorities for Elders (6:4)
3. Deacons (6:5-7)
What is the difference between an elder and a deacon? If you could sum up the job description of an elder or pastor in a few words, what would it be? Similarly, if you could sum up the job description of a deacon in a few words, what would it be? The best I have ever found is this. An elder is in charge of spiritual oversight of the church while a deacon is in charge of physical oversight.
All people have all sorts of needs. But all needs boil down into one of two categories - spiritual and physical. And God has organized His church to meet both sets of needs. The elders have been placed in their positions to meet the spiritual needs, and the deacons are chosen to meet the physical needs. We see this all over in the Bible, but this distinction is first set up during the early stages of the church. The first place we see these two ministry functions clearly outlined is in Acts 6. A physical need arises in the church, and the apostles realize that although meeting this need would be a good thing for them to do, it would distract them from their God-given priorities.
But rather than just ignore the need, they choose some people from the church to meet that need. In this way, the need is met, and the apostles are able to focus on their purpose in the church. This need is introduced in Acts 6:1 and centers around the issue of a type of discrimination that was going on in the early church.
1. Discrimination (6:1)
1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
There are two groups of people in verse 1. The Hebrew Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. Both are Jews. The Hebrew Jews are those who tried to remain as obedient to the laws and traditions of Judaism as they could during the dispersion. They still spoke Hebrew. They dressed in their traditional clothing and were obviously very different from all of the other surrounding people. The Hellenistic Jews, on the other hand, had adopted the language, customs and culture of the Greek civilization. They probably no longer spoke Hebrew, but spoke Greek. They didn't dress in traditional Jewish clothes, but wore the kind of clothing the average Roman citizen wore. It was very difficult to tell the Hellenistic Jew apart from anyone else on the street. And naturally, the Hebraic Jews began to look down on the Hellenistic Jews as "second-class" Jews. The Hebraic Jews thought that the Hellenistic Jews had sold out and compromised. They lived and looked too much like the world.
We see this sort of thing happen all the time in churches across America today. In some churches in the Midwest, people will think you are second-class Christian if you don't wear a suit to church. Of course, if you go out to the West Coast, people will think you're too stuck on outward appearances if you do wear a suit to church. There are other ways we try to discriminate between Christians who are really devoted and those who are not. For example, I tend to think that people who come to a Wednesday night prayer meeting and Bible study are the committed ones, while everyone else are "second class." But this is an outward actions that does not necessarily reveal an inward motive. We cannot judge people as "spiritually immature" simply because they don’t come to Wednesday night Bible study. We could also list things like tattoos, what kind of car a person drives, what music they listen to, what they drink with their meal, what they wear to church, how they behave in church, how much money they give to the church and so on. While some of these may be good indicators of spirituality, none of them are able to reveal a person's heart motives to us, which God alone sees. So we must be careful not to judge or discriminate against them.
This is what the Hebraic Jews were doing. Somehow, they were the ones who gained more control in the early church, and in the daily distribution of food among the widows, the Hellenistic Jews were being ignored and overlooked. The Hebraic Jews must have thought that the Hellenistic widows did not deserve to be cared for because they were compromising with the world. They were carnal Christians. And so the Hellenistic widows were going hungry. They had a need which nobody was meeting.
Now, this is just one example of a physical need in the church. There are numerous other physical needs that must not be overlooked in the church. There are always numerous people in the church who have needs. There are the sick or poor or hungry. People who have need of work, or food or clothing. People who have mental, emotional, financial or psychological needs. And it is the responsibility of the church to meet as many of these needs as possible. But here in Acts 6, we are told exactly who has a need and what it is.
They were women who could not work. They were widows who might have had children they were taking care of, or who were too old to remarry or work. They were without food. They were hungry and had no means of getting food. This need is not somebody who could work, but just doesn't want to. This need is not somebody who is making poor financial decisions with the money they do have. This is a real need. These widows are without money and without recourse. They have not way of getting money or getting food. And Biblically, the church is supposed to take care of widows in this situation.
James 1:27 tell us to visit orphans and widows in their distress. "Visit" doesn't just to go by and spend some time chatting with them. The word is episkeptomai. It means to care for, to be concerned about, to be there for them in their time of need, to supply for their needs. It even carries with it the idea of actively looking for them. It doesn't mean waiting for them to come to us and ask that we meet their needs. It means looking around the church and seeking out those who are genuinely in need. This is the way the word is used right here in Acts 6:3 also. It is translated there as "seek out from among you."
Stephen uses it later in his sermon in Acts 7:23. Moses grew up in the royal courts of Egypt, but when he was 40 years old, he decided to go and see how his brethren among the Israelites were doing. Acts 7:23 says, "Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit (episkeptomai) his brethren, the children of Israel." Moses actively sought out his brethren to see if there was any way he could help them. You know what happens. He tries to help them in his flesh by killing an Egyptian, which forces him to flee to Midian where he hid for 40 years before returning in the power of God.
But the point is that we are to seek out and care for those in the church who have genuine needs. We don't wait for them to come to us. Sometimes, as here in Acts 6, those with needs seek out help for themselves, but for the most part, we should be on the look out for them, and then doing something to meet their needs. So this is what the church is supposed to do for those who are in need. And specifically here in Acts 6, and James 1:27, the widows. Now the Bible contains very clear and careful instructions on how to care for widows.
1 Timothy 5:3-16 contains the Biblical teaching on the care of widows. This passage provides a clear, step-by-step process for determining which widows to care for and how their needs should be met. Verse 3 shows first of all that there are two classes of widows. There are widows and widows indeed. There are widows and those who are really widows. You say, "What's the difference?" Well, the following verses reveal that a widow is anyone who has lost her husband to death, divorce or departure. But a widow indeed is more than just a widow. A widow indeed is a woman who not only has lost her husband, but is completely without help from family members. She has no one in the world who will meet her needs. You see the husband's role was to protect and provide for her. If he dies, then it is the role of her father, her brothers or brothers-in-law, her uncles and her children, if they are grown, to take care of her. But if there is nobody to meet her needs, then she is a widow indeed. She has nobody to provide for her or protect her.
So Paul gives instructs for both in verses 4-16. First, for those who are widows. He says that they should be cared for by their extended family. In verse 4, he calls upon children and grandchildren to take care of her. He says in verse 16 that any of her Christian family members should take care of her. He says in verse 8 that if a family does not take care of its widows, they are worse than unbelievers. He says in verse 14 that younger widows should get re-married if at all possible. But what about those who do not have any family members who support them? What about those who are widows indeed? He says in verse 5 that they should rely on God in prayer and supplication. And then in verse 9, she should be put on the widow's list. Under certain conditions, the church provides for these widows and cares for them (5:9-16). They in turn, kind of become "staff widows" are expected to serve in the church and meet the needs of other people in church, and help teach, train and support the younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
Apparently, it is these widows indeed who are being neglected in Acts 6. It is not all of the widows, but only the Hellenistic widows. They do come to the apostles and ask for help. And the apostles correctly discern that something must be done to meet this need, but that they themselves cannot meet it and still focus on what God has called them to do. In fact, very likely, they realize that this situation has arisen, because they have not been giving enough time to the teaching of the Word. However, they can't do both. They cannot meet this real need and still perform their God-given priorities. They cannot care for the widows and accomplish their purpose in the church. So in verses 2-4, they discern that they need some help. They set their pastoral priorities and lay out some principles for choosing deacons.
2. Discernment (6:2-4)
2Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
They gather the church together and say, "Look, here's a need that must be met. But our purpose is not to serve in this way. God has ordained us to meet people's spiritual needs with the Word of God. If we neglected the Word, in order to serve tables, certainly, people would be fed physically, but then they would starve spiritually. "But we do recognize that this need is important, and so select some men to meet this physical need. Meanwhile, we will continue to focus all our energy on meeting the spiritual needs. We will do this through two things - prayer and preaching the Word."
It is not that they disliked caring for the needy, nor does it imply that they thought they were too important for such work. To the contrary, they knew that such work was vitally important. But they knew that caring for the sick and poor was not their first priority. Their first priority was not meeting the physical needs, but meeting the spiritual needs of people. So they tell the church to select men to meet the physical needs. Notice in verse 3 that there are three stated requirements for deacons.
a. Three Requirements for Deacons (6:2-3)
First, they had to be men of good reputation. Or men of honest report. This means both inside and outside the church, they are to be well liked. They must be men who are honest and reliable. It is not a popularity contest, but these men are well known and well liked in the community. Second, they are full of the Holy Spirit. These men are spiritually mature. The working of the Holy Spirit is evident in their lives. They reveal the fruit of the spirit and a knowledge of the Word. They are under the control of the Spirit. Finally, they are also full of…wisdom. They are wise and understanding. They are men of discernment. They are able to correctly judge the actions and motives of people to whom they are giving care. Handling the funds of the church requires great wisdom and prayerful discernment.
So from these three qualifications, we see that they are not spiritual slackers. Sometimes, deacons in churches are chosen simply by whoever is willing to serve, or whoever has money to give. But these men were spiritual giants in the church. These were men of faith and integrity and power. They were intimate with the Word and filled with the Holy Spirit. They were wise and discerning. No deacon should ever feel that they are second class leaders in the church. Being a deacon is a high privilege and is meeting a great need that pastors and elders cannot meet.
Now, there are other qualifications besides these three. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 lists several more. They are to be men of dignity, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not greedy, and must live out in life what he believes. His wife has certain qualifications also, and he must be devoted to her and be a good father to his children. We could go into great detail on all of these. One author who has is a man named Alexander Strauch in his book, The New Testament Deacon.
1 Timothy 3 also lists the qualifications for elders. There are many similarities between the two offices, but the main difference is in the function. Deacons are to meet the physical needs of the members of the church; the elders are to be those who meet the spiritual needs of the church, primarily through the teaching of the Word. This is what we see the apostles say in verse 4.
b. Two Priorities for Elders (6:4)
4but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
The two things every pastor, every elder should focus on is prayer and preaching. If these things are not getting done, it is his responsibility and the responsibility of the church to cut things out of his schedule, and take away certain responsibilities until these things become his number one priority and purpose and function in the church. It has become popular today to think of the pastor and the elders as the ones who go about serving people and visiting people in the hospital and in their homes and helping them do the fix-it projects at home and spending time with them on the golf course and in the fishing boat. Now, these things are all fine and dandy for a pastor, or an elder, to do, IF the people in the church are being fed spiritually.
What good is it to have people in the church with full bellies if they are starving spiritually? Strauch says this:
We all know we need food in order to live. That is why we expend so much energy to provide food for ourselves. Yet, most people don't know they also need the Word of God in order to live. In the Old Testament, Moses told Israel, "'…[God] let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know…that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord'" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Our Lord also said, "'Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you'" (John 6:27).
People cannot truly live without God's Word…to neglect preaching the Word would destroy the church…
I am convinced that the main reason the American church is so spiritually weak today is that the majority of pastor's have neglected the systematic teaching of the Word. The Christians who attend churches where the Word is not taught are suffering from severe spiritual malnutrition. And somebody who is malnourished has no strength, no power. They get sick easy. They are easily defeated by any enemy that comes along. All they do is lie around half asleep. A church that is well fed spiritually will be a healthy, powerful, vibrant, growing church. This is why it is so important for the pastors and elders of every church to focus primarily on prayer and preaching.
John MacArthur, in his book called Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry writes this:
The contemporary church…has erroneously taken the responsibility of nurturing care for the people of God from under the leadership of the deacons and has reassigned it to the pastor….Pastors must be caring people, but…the saints should do the work of the ministry.
Pastors who prefer to spend time caring for people's physical needs may be depriving the deacons of assuming their God-given function. If they feel led to focus on such needs instead of teaching the Word, perhaps they unapologetically should step out of their role as pastor-teachers and live out their goals as helpers, people of deep compassion for physical needs. This would open up pastoral slots for others to preach and teach the Word. Christians need the teaching of God's Word at all costs. This must not be neglected.
Churches who prefer having a pastor spend most of his time doing visitation and counseling should consider finding a person specifically for these tasks.
Prayer and preaching the Word are the primary functions and responsibilities of the spiritual leaders of the church. Meeting the physical needs of the church are the priorities of the deacons and church body at large. Toward this end, the early church chose seven men who were responsible to meet these needs. We read about them in verses 5-7.
3. Deacons (6:5-7)
5And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
You know what is interesting about these seven names? They are all Greek names. This implies that all of them were Hellenistic Jews except for the seventh. Luke tells us that Nicolas was a proselyte from Antioch. This means he was a Gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. So none of the seven were of the Hebraic Jews. This doesn't mean that the Hebraic Jews couldn’t be deacons. They could. But the apostles were so intent on making sure that the minority, those who were often overlooked and ignored, were taken care of, they picked seven men from among the minority to make sure the work got done. If we want to reach out to someone, it is often best to pick mature Christians from among that group to do the work. Now certainly, because these men were Godly men, they took care of the Hebraic Jews also, but they did so fairly and with justice.
In the chapters to come, we read more about Stephen and Philip. Great men of God devoted to His service. Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr and was a powerful Bible teacher. Philip was an evangelist carrying the Gospel to an unreached and often hated people group - the Samaritans. He had four daughters who became prophetesses and were influential in the life of Paul.
We don’t know anything much from the Bible about the other five, but literature outside the Bible does give us some hints. Prochorus supposedly became the assistant and secretary to the apostle John. After John died, Prochorus became one of the elders of a large church in Nidomeda before being martyred.
We don't know anything about Nicanor, Timon or Parmenas, but some believe that Nicolas became a false teacher who started the Nicolaitian heresy mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15. We cannot be sure that Nicolas of Acts 6 is the one who started the Nicolaitian heresy, but there is some speculation that he was.
I see from these seven numerous paths a deacon can take. First of all, like Stephen, Philip, and Prochorus, they can go on to great service and ministry and fame within God's church. Like Stephen, they may end up dying for the truth of Christianity. Others, like Stephen, may spread the Gospel far and wide, and raise up wonderful Christian families to carry on the work. Or, like Prochorus, they may change roles from being in charge of the physical oversight to being in charge of the spiritual oversight of the church.
Then there are those deacons like Nicanor, Timon and Parmenas, who continue to serve God behind the scenes in relative obscurity. They are happy to quietly and faithfully serve God. Their service is rarely recognized, but that is how they like it. They almost never get their name in the bulletin, and especially not in the newspaper. They just love to help people whenever, wherever and however they can. Of course, they will not be overlooked in heaven, for God sees what is done in secret and will reward them. I am certain that there were hundreds, if not thousands of Christians in the early church who greatly benefited from the service of these men. 1 Timothy 3:13 says that those deacons who serve well obtain for themselves a high standing in the church and great boldness when they stand before Christ. Some deacons change roles and functions and gain public recognition. Some continue to anonymously serve God behind the scenes. Those are two highly commendable categories of deacons.
But then some, possibly like Nicolas, end up in false doctrine and teaching heresy. I have known deacons like this - who want more power and fame and notoriety for themselves than God has seen fit to give them, and so they try to get it for themselves, and end up leading many people astray. It is a very sad thing and can lead to disaster.
But whatever happens eventually to these seven, all of them initially have a part in what we read in verse 7. Because they began to serve and minister and meet people's physical needs, the apostles were able to devote more time to prayer and preaching, and look what happens in verse 7.
7Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Verse 7 is the secret to church growth. The Biblical method for growing a church numerically, spiritually and in ministry expansion is simply to feed the flock. Healthy sheep reproduce naturally. Sick and malnourished sheep curl up and die, or wander away looking for grass elsewhere. But when we provide rich, thick, nutritious, lush grass for them to eat their fill of, they will eat and reproduce. It's inevitable. As the apostles are freed to focus on teaching, we see that three things happen naturally.
The Word of God spread. People went everywhere talking about the Bible and what they had learned under the apostle's teaching. People take what they learn and spread it around. It comes out at work. It comes out in the neighborhood. It shows itself in changes of behavior and work ethics and family priorities. When the Word of God is taught, the Word of God spreads.
Second, the number of disciples multiplied greatly. Many people were not only coming to faith in Christ, but were also continuing down the path of discipleship. They were living their lives for Christ and were making a difference in the world through the way they lived.
Finally, a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith also. This means that many of the priests were becoming disciples. Though many of them were formerly very antagonistic to Jesus Christ and the fledgling Christian church, they were now seeing that Christ truly did fulfil the Old Testament laws and prophecies and so they were becoming Christians and living in obedience to the truths of Christ.
When God's Word is preached and God's people are cared for, God does great things in and through His church. And the key to it all was the deacons. They let needy people know that they were cared for. They let the apostles focus on their purpose of prayer and preaching.
Deacons are extremely important in the church for enabling it to function as it should. They meet the physical needs of people so the elders and pastors can meet the spiritual needs. They are ministers of service while the elders and pastors are ministers of speaking. One is not better than the other. Both are necessary for the healthy function and growth of the body.
The greatest deacon of all is Jesus Christ, who came to be a serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). Deacons follow in His footsteps by being strong without being harsh, gentle without being weak, caring without being sentimental, and forgiving without being spineless. The Deacon is the pastor's, the congregation's and the community's best friend because he is Christ to them all.