[Act 6:1-7 ESV] 1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 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.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The beginning and end of our passage speaks of the increase of the Christian church in those days. We know that it started with Jesus and a small group of his followers. And we know that in a few centuries Christianity had virtually overtaken the world, even the antagonistic Romans became followers of Christ, even the emperors themselves believed.
Well you don’t just go from 12 followers to 12 million followers overnight. There was a process by which God added to the number of his disciples. From Judea and Samaria to Pontus, Cappadocia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India the Christians spread and with them the Good News also went.
Not all were called to be Apostles. Not all were called to be elders or preachers. Some were called to be teachers, and others to be deacons. It is our passage today that speaks of the first deacons. One might say “proto-deacons” only because the term “deacon” is not yet used, but their function is of the diaconate, the same as would develop in church history.
They are to help the widows in the daily distribution. (of bread presumably)
They are to serve tables.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of the duties of these deacons.
The work of these deacons is to free the Apostles to be devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word. But this does not mean that the deacons do not also pray, for certainly all Christians are called to pray to God.
Sometimes, on a job I feel rather useless. Just the other week I was helping my brother build a bookcase in his barn. And I didn’t know where the tools were or what his design was for the shelves. But there were a number of ways in which I was able to free him up to focus on the work at hand. I did a little cleaning, opening up better space for him to work in. And then, when asked, I employed my body weight to stand on a board while he cut a slot in the other end.
This, like our account of the proto-deacons is instructive. Sometimes our work is ground-breaking and cutting edge. Other times our work is helpful in freeing up others to focus on their work. I mention this to encourage you. Perhaps you are not the top worker at your place of employment. But even so, you are valuable to them. And, housewives, are to be encourage. The work of the house and of the children is great work in itself. But perhaps you feel like you don’t “produce” something, some product. Well, take heart in the fact that your work frees up your husband to better focus on his work and the products that it produces.
Here in Acts the product of the Apostles is converts. Yes, it is also prayer and preaching, but those are to the end of making converts to the faith. And the Lord is greatly blessing their work. People are joining the church. And with every new member there is catechism to be done. While they didn’t the Westminster Catechism, very early in the church they still were doing “catechesis;” that is, teaching the faith to new believers. In fact, Jesus told them, make disciples of all nations, not only baptizing them, but teaching them as well. It would have been a lot easier if it was just a matter of baptizing folks. But because of the great work to be done in ministry, the apostles needed to be freed up. And to be freed up they needed deacons.
But also you are working to produce the great product of all, Christian young men and Christian young women. If it is the Lord’s will.
One of the apostles said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 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.”
Now in 1 Timothy and in Titus there are requirements for eldership. But here in Acts we find requirements for the diaconate. The deacon must be of good repute. This helps to ensure that church funds are not squandered or stolen. And the deacons are to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Not just wise in the world, but full of Biblical wisdom and truly a believer with the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.
Not just anyone can be a deacon. This is not a position for a new convert to the faith. It takes years to grow in wisdom and to have a good reputation.
Now it strikes me that while elders existed in Old Testament times in the Synagogues, they did not have the office of deacon. This is a new office. And it necessary from that time forward. There was much work to do in the preaching of the word of God.
And it comes about because of strife in the church. God used a bad situation to good ends. Much of church history is like this. Nicene creed. Dordt. Being clear examples.
There was work in the Old Testament times for the priests. Much of it was ritual. They also did read the word of God. But now, the Good News is known more fully. Jesus Christ has come, and he has died, and he is risen again. So there is desire apparent here to preach the good news without haste. Whether Christ’s return is imminent or not, there are people dying in their sins, and the apostles have the only hope, the new life in the spirit and the promise of the resurrection at the end of the world.
So the deacons work is good work in and of itself. It is a good thing to help the widows in the distribution. It is a good thing to serve tables. All of their work is good. But also good is that their work is freeing up the apostles for the preaching of the word of God.
Now the work of deacons today is also helpful to the church minister (like myself) and frees me to focus on the ministry of the Word. And we have that official office of Deacon. But all members of a church can help free up the ministry of the Word through their own help at the church.
A story comes to mind of my former colleague Rev. Richard Hicks. And when he was pastoring in the coal country of rural Virginia he had a call to two churches, Dickenson First and the tiny Big Ridge congregation. And these two churches owned a manse or parsonage together. And when Rev. Hicks moved in they said “we can pay you more if you will mow the grass here at the parsonage.” And his response — and we should focus on the positive elements of it — was “I did not come here to mow grass, but to preach the Word of God.” So the church paid someone else to mow the grass and free him up for Gospel ministry. Now, before one things “oh, that is selfish and lazy,” I’d say “This was a good thing and there was much work to be done in the ministry, and there is the precedent example of the proto-deacons in book of Acts.”
For the record, I don’t mind mowing the grass or doing any other task that may help out around here, but I think it is right to prioritize the Gospel ministry. And so on most weeks I work on getting my sermon done first, and only then doing those physical things necessary in the world.
So seven men in the passage are chosen to be deacons. Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Pumbaa (no, that’s Parmenas) and Nicolaus. The one we know most about is Stephen whom the narrative will continue with in the rest of chapter 6 and through chapter 7 until his death as the first martyr. Here is says that Stephen was a “man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” This is not to say that the others were not likewise meeting the criteria necessary for the role of deacon, but merely that someone Stephen was especially notable in those ways. And it shows in the chapter that follows that indeed Stephen is full of faith, even unto his martyrdom.
Of the last of the seven proto-deacons, we have Nicolaus who is said to be a “proselyte of Antioch.” That is, he is a person converted from some other faith. Most likely he was not a Jew. He has a Greek name, Nicolaus. And comes from Antioch, a city not in Israel.
But it is actually noted by commentators that all seven of these deacons have Greek names.
This certainly tells us that the church, even in this earliest period, was a mix of both Jew and Gentile. God was bringing into his kingdom ALL peoples, just as He promised in the Old Testament.
Gentiles were coming to the faith, and so were the priests!
In the final line of our passage it says “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
In some ways this is unsurprising. Certainly those who are most attuned to the Scriptures would recognize Jesus as the messiah and follow him.
But in most ways this is surprising, for throughout the gospels and into the book of Acts it is the priests who are the opposition to the Christians.
But this shows the great power of God and of the Gospel, that all are being converted. Even enemies of the faith. A great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. This is a movement not just of peasant family members of Jesus, but now of the priests, and in some centuries, even the kings of the world. It is a conquering Gospel. Not by the sword, but by the word of God which is sharper than any two-edged sword.
It is an encouraging time in the Book of Acts when “the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” Soon we’ll see the faith spreading to many other places, but first it is expanding right in Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’s death.
Let us think then of the Gospel as leading us forward and as conquering. And let us look to contribute whether we are called to preach or to work behind the scenes. And do all the glory of God.