The Problem of Distraction

Acts 6:1-7     |     Sermon Resources      |     16 February 2020


There were lots of things to be excited about in the early church – scores of people coming to faith, a deeply unified body of believers, signs and wonders being done regularly by the apostles, even angels were involved in interceding for the church!  But the church was not without challenges either.  Most obviously they faced escalating persecution from the Jewish authorities.  The apostles in particular did ministry at the risk of their own lives.  Besides the external threats, there were issues within the body of believers.  Early on there was the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira who colluded together to deceive the church.   In that case, Peter rightly discerned the spiritual nature of what was really going on, that Satan had filled their hearts.   In our passage this week we come to a third category of challenge for the church, the issue of distraction.  On the surface this would seem to be the least serious issue so far, but in reality, it has the potential to do the most damage.

Earlier Peter and the apostles had to choose between obeying God or obeying men.  The decision was obvious even if it was challenging to live out.  But now the apostles are faced with an even more difficult choice – choosing between two good and worthy tasks.  Should they devote themselves to preaching and prayer or should they take care of the destitute widows in the church?  This was a charged issue.  The neglect of the widows had become a source of division within the church.  The apostles needed to act.


#1 The Problem

It’s notable that Luke begins by telling us that the disciples were increasing in number (v.1).  The church was in an exciting season of growth which was being fueled by new people coming to faith.  What would this have been like to be part of a church that was growing not because other Christians had shown up but because the lost were being found?  Of course, a church full of new believers presents its own challenges.  Sanctification is a slow and often messy process.  This is not the only explanation for the problem that arose but certainly cannot be ignored.  The church is full of sinners!  And sinners sin.

We are told the issue surrounded the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily distribution (v.1).  Within the church at this time there were former Jews who came from a Greek background (the Hellenists) and former Jews who remained rooted in the Jewish culture and language (the Hebrews).  Now remember that it become a practice in the early church for believers to sell their property and to lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (c.f. Acts 4:34-35).  The apostles took charge of overseeing the distribution of these gifts as needs arose.  Apparently they were not doing a great job which is why a complaint by the Hellenists arose (v.1).

This was dividing the church.  We were told earlier that “all who believed were together and had all things in common (c.f. Acts 2:44).”  Things were changing now.  Was the neglect of the Greek widows intentional?  We are not told.  At the very least there would have been language barriers that would have complicated things.

This latest challenge facing the church was threefold.  (1) The Hellenists widows were being neglected.  (2) This neglect was beginning to divide the church.  (3) The whole issue was becoming a distraction for the apostles.  The apostles gather the church together and spell out this last issue, It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables (v.2). They recognize that they cannot do both tasks well.  Something has to give!  It’s not that serving tables is an unworthy or unimportant task.  The issue was that the apostles had been called by Jesus to preach (c.f. Mark 3:14-15).  This was not a choice between good and evil but about pursuing their own higher calling.


#2 The Response

The apostles recognize that while they are capable of overseeing the daily distribution, they cannot do this work and be effective in preaching and prayer.  They must make a decision.  So they summoned the full number of the disciples (v.2). This is the first record we have of a congregation meeting.  They put it to the entire body of believers to pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (v.3).  This is important and worthy work which is why the standard is set so high:

  • Good repute. There should be no reason for anyone to question this man’s integrity and willingness to fairly oversee this ministry.
  • Full of the Spirit. All believers have the Holy Spirit within them (c.f. 2 Corinthians 1:22) and so this must be more than just the indwelling of the Spirit. These are men who are not only not quenching the Spirit (c.f. 1 Thessalonians 5:19) but who are walking by the power of the Spirit.
  • Full of wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowing the right stuff but consistently living it out.

Luke is not explicit in referring to this group of men as deacons but many see in this passage the beginning of this ministry.  (By the way, the word deacon is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos which means servant and it is used here in verse 2 regarding the apostles desire not to serve tables.)

The apostles clarify that choosing these seven men will allow them to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (v.4).  This was their higher calling.  I am convicted every time I read this passage, because it forces me to evaluate my own higher calling.  I am no apostle.  The days of the apostles are over.  But I do believe God has called me into pastoral ministry.  I must make those difficult decisions every day if I am to remain  true to the calling he has given me.  And not just to preach his word, but the first item on the apostles’ list was prayer.  They wanted to be free to pray and to preach.  Wow!  And they are clear. They would be hindered in fulfilling their calling if others did not step up and fulfill their own calling to serve tables.

Seven men are picked out by the believers:  Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolaus (v.5). It has been noted that all seven men have Greek names but we are not told explicitly whether they were Hellenists or Hebrews.  It is significant that the only man whom Luke shares more details about is Stephen, and as we will see, he was doing more than just waiting on tables.

All seven men are set before the apostles who then pray and lay hands on them (v.6).  This detail is important as it demonstrates the authority that is given to the group of seven.


#3 The Outcome

What was the outcome of this episode?  Presumably all three challenges were effectively addressed.  (1) All of the widows were cared for.  (2) Unity between the Hellenists and the Hebrews was preserved.  (3) And the apostles were freed to step more deeply into prayer and preaching.

Luke tells us that the word of God continued to increase and that the disciples multiplied greatly including many of the priests (v.7).  Even the priests who were connected with the Sadducees, the major antagonists of the early church, were coming to faith.

What we need to see here is that the different members of the family of God were each using their gifts and seeking to be faithful to the calling they had received.  And the result was that the word of God was increasing.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do we learn from this statement by the apostles: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”?
  2. Explain the concept of a “shadow mission.” Why was waiting on tables a shadow mission for the apostles?
  3. What shadow missions are you tempted to spend time pursuing? Why is this a big deal?
  4. Do you believe you have a unique God-given mission that only you can fulfill?
  5. How would the body of Christ be energized if every Christian really believed they had a unique role to serve?
  6. Why do you think the apostles set such high standards for who could serve the widows?
  7. What other lessons are there for us in this passage?