3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:3-4
What should leaders do when more must be done to serve the people of God? Delegate!
A dispute occurred in the early church. By this time, the church had some system of distributing daily necessities to widows who otherwise could not provide for themselves. This is an important role of the church. To fulfil social justice among its members, the poor and rich, the racially, culturally and linguistically diverse. However, the system had kinks. The Greek-speaking Christian widows (likely migrants from the Jewish diaspora and not locals from Jerusalem or Roman-occupied Palestine) felt they were not getting the fair share of food distribution compared to the Hebrew-speaking ones (likely locals from Jerusalem or nearby regions).
It’s likely the distribution was done haphazardly, without proper supervision and systems. Some anti-institution people today think systems and supervision should be done away with. Yet, without systems and supervision, injustice and problems would likely happen. We should not be slaves to systems or supervision; they should serve our needs.
So the 12 apostles gathered to address this problem. Yet, they needed to focus on their core service of prayer and preaching God’s word. Sure, everyone could and should pray, but they devoted a large portion of their time to praying. I wonder what this ministry consists of; I imagine praying among themselves for the church and for people to enter the Kingdom of God, and also praying directly for people for restoration, forgiveness of sins and spiritual growth. It took up so much of their time! How little my prayer must be compared to theirs!
Their other main area of service was preaching God’s word. They had learnt so much from Jesus in their time with him. They had to impart this to the other believers. Few others had such direct reception of Jesus’ teachings. Note that at that time, the teachings were likely not yet written down.
This does not make the job of administering the food distribution less important. Rather, the apostles knew their role in the light of their unique God-given time spent with Jesus directly. Indeed, the food distribution was important that those chosen to assist the apostles in it had to fulfil a certain criteria: good repute, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Not just any person from the street.
Thus, seven men were chosen from the rest of the believers by the believers based on this criteria. They became the first deacons of the church. Something we may not realise immediately is that the seven chosen were Greek-speaking Christians. And likely the majority of the Jerusalem church members were Hebrew-speaking. I speculate the majority wanted to ensure that the minority would not feel unfairly treated so they chose Greek-speaking deacons. This shows the consideration that the majority had to make the minority feel like one family. We should be like this in our church too: always considering those among us who might feel marginalised or unfairly treated.
We are told later in Acts 6-8 that two of these deacons–Stephen and Philip–would go about preaching about Jesus to people and do signs and wonders. Stephen would die witnessing to Jesus, the first martyr. He had the face of an angel, like Moses whose face shone with the glory of God. The word “martys” was the Greek word for “witness”.
What is significant is that these two deacons had the same abilities as the apostles. They fulfilled the commission Jesus gave to the disciples. They spoke the word of God to people and performed signs and wonders. The signs and wonders attested to their legitimacy as God-chosen prophets of God’s word. The Holy Spirit did not only reserve this for the apostles.
This is paralleled with the narrative in Numbers 11, where Moses told God that the Israelites were complaining about food, and that Moses was too burdened to deal with the Israelites by himself–he was burnt out! God told Moses to appoint 70 elders, and God then transferred a portion of the Spirit in Moses to the elders. These elders were thus delegated assistants to Moses to assist him in serving the people. The elders started to prophesy upon this transferrance of Spirit. Then, 2 men inside the camp (likely not of the 70 elders) were also prophesying. Joshua, son of Nun, told Moses to stop them. Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). This would come to be fulfilled in Acts 2, which was recognised also by the apostles as the fulfilment of the Joel prophecy that all who believe would receive the Holy Spirit.
We see then that in the new covenant made through Jesus, not only a select few (whether Moses or the 12 apostles) would receive the Holy Spirit and be able to speak forth the word of God, serve God and His people with wisdom, and fulfil Jesus’ commission to witness to the world. All who truly follow Jesus will receive the Holy Spirit and thus be able to serve and be witnesses to Jesus. Mind you, the 7 deacons were not filled with the Spirit because they were appointed deacons. Instead, they were appointed deacons because they were already full of wisdom and the Spirit. Some of us Christians today may tend to diminish the significant privilege of having the Holy Spirit abide in us, empowering us for service and witness. We should not squander this great privilege!
As a result of this delegation of authority and responsibility by the apostles to the deacons, it was observed that the word of God increased and many more people came to the faith. This included many Jewish Levitical priests. It’s quite likely that these were impressed by the church’s charity and service to the poor given the context of the food distribution, along with the preaching of God’s word, that they came to faith. After all, the Levitical priests were likely often poor and relied on the tithes of the Jews for food and provision. In the early church, the food distribution was likely seen as a form of such tithe provision.
God has given in every time and church different people with different abilities and different life circumstances. These are meant for the service of God and His people, for witnessing to the world about Jesus. Each area of service is important and requires specific abilities and thus specific people planted by God for those tasks. But God-given natural ability is one thing. It is only when a person grows in faith and obedience to God, grow in wisdom and Spirit, and is put into service of God that the church may fulfil her purpose.
What are our God-given abilities, traits and circumstances which He can use to serve Him and the Church and to witness to Jesus? How are we using them to fulfil the purpose of the Church? How are we growing in wisdom and obedience to the Spirit? Because the church’s fulfilment of the mission of God depends on it! And it’s our privilege to serve God and witness to Him by the Spirit!