For those of us who love Jesus, and the good news about what he’s done for us — especially during that final week of his life, as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and staggered out on Good Friday with a crossbeam on his back — and for those of us who love his church and its health and growth, there are a series of five verses in the book of Acts that are among our favorites. They are a sweet refrain in the book that point us to one of Luke’s main points in writing: the message of Jesus and his church is increasing and multiplying.
We come across the first this morning in Acts 6:7: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” Here we have “increase” and “multiply” together. Four other summary statements in Acts have one or both of the two:
9:31: “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
12:24: “the word of God increased and multiplied”
16:5: “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily”
19:20: “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”
In 9:31 and 16:5, it is the church that is said to multiply/increase, and in 12:24 and 19:20, it is “the word of God.” These are two sides of the same coin. The word increases through the growth of the church, and the church multiplies through the advance of the word. There is no true progress of the gospel without growth of the church, and no true growth of the church without the advance of the gospel.
As we come today to Acts 6, it’s important to see that “the word of God” and its increase is the central reality here. The note is sounded three times in verses 2, 4, and 7, with verse 7 being the all-important summary statement. So, perhaps we should say here at the outset that deed ministry (which is so memorably addressed in this chapter) accompanies the word; it does not replace it. At the heart of this passage is the leadership taking action so as not to hinder and stop the ministry of the word. More on that in a minute.
We won’t deal in detail this morning with verses 8–15, but the story of Stephen is where we’re headed the week after Easter and then again on April 26.
As we look at verses 1–7, I want you to notice four things.
1. The Complaint (verses 1–2)
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.
There is a nice envelope here that marks off this passage as a unit. Verse 1 mentions the disciples increasing in number, and verse 7, as we’ve seen, returns to the theme (“the word of God continued to increase”). This story has a happy ending — the gospel continues to advance — but not without a conflict to overcome.
A complaint arises in verse 1. It’s an unpleasant sounding word — gongusmos — the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness. And after such harmony at the end of chapter 4! Remember how ideal the early church seemed in 4:32–34?
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them . . .
Yet as the word of God grows, and the church increases, the practical dynamics of church life inevitably change. And communities in which there had been the sweetest, richest unity can find themselves, seemingly all of a sudden, with cracks and divides.
Here it happens along the fault line of a language barrier. As the word of God has grown, it has spread from its origin among the Hebrews (Jews who spoke Aramaic) now increasingly to the Hellenists (Jews who spoke Greek). The gospel is advancing; the church is increasing. The Greek-speakers were coming in at the periphery, while the leadership and the majority in the church spoke a different language, and the practical difference in language created an unintentional barrier to the care of widows.
It seems the apostles’ instinct is to fix this themselves. This is a good leadership default: you gotta a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it. Good impulse, but often wisdom must prevail over impulse. The apostles realize that they must not abdicate their role in communicating the word of Jesus and being the spokesmen he commissioned them to be (John 14:26; 15:26–27; 16:13; 17:20). Yes, it is important that the Greek-speaking widows are not neglected in the daily distribution of food. And it is even more important that the whole church is not neglected in the daily distribution of the Bread of heaven.
So even though the apostles feel the impulse to make this happen themselves, they acknowledge, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (verse 2). Literally, “It is not pleasing to leave behind the word of God to serve tables.” This is not meant to talk down about serving tables, but to talk up the place of God’s word in the church. The issue here is, Will the word of God be left behind to meet other needs?
Apparently, continuing in and devoting themselves to the word of God took time. When you’re speaking for God, you don’t just stand up and say whatever comes to your mind. You do what Paul encouraged Timothy to do: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Christianity is word-based, and those who lead “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:8).
So Acts 6 is relevant not just as historical background for appointing deacons, which we hope to do someday soon at Cities Church, but also for appointing Pastor Joe as one of our pastor-teachers. At the center of the living organism of the church is God’s word — his word in Jesus, in the gospel, and in the Scriptures. The church is a creature of the word — created by God’s word, sustained by God’s word, for the defense and advance of God’s word. We don’t start with deacons. We start with the word of God, and then elders and pastors (same office), and we commission and formally recognize deacons as the teachers of the word need help in anticipating and caring for other needs in the life of the church.
Deed-ministry in the church, and in our witness, complements and supplements word-ministry. Not because serving tables isn’t important, but because God’s word is of utmost importance — because God is of utmost importance. It is not because teachers are more important, but because teaching is central. Jesus is central. And he is the Word.
Let It Be a Lesson for Us
One last thing related to the complaint of verse 1. It seems that they dealt with this disunity pretty quickly and did not let it fester. At least that’s the impression we get from the narrative. Let it be a lesson for Cities Church. Disunity doesn’t go away if we neglect and suppress it; it gets worse. Approach it right away. See it as an opportunity for grace. God has a gift to give the young church in Acts 6, and it comes not through keeping them from conflict, but through tackling their troubles head on.
Matthew 5:23–24: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Ephesians 4:26–27: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil”
So, first, the complaint in verses 1–2. Now, the response.
2. The Decision (verses 3–5)
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.
So the leadership takes action, and what’s surprising is how much the whole church is involved in this. These leaders here are not mere pastor-elders; these are the apostles. They were commissioned by the risen Christ to play a unique and unrepeatable role in the church. And yet, they didn’t dictate for all the course of action; rather they have “summoned the full number of the disciples” (verse 2), and they put it in the congregation’s court, “pick out from among you seven men.”
Even here, with the apostles still on the scene, we glimpse the living dynamic between the church and her leaders in the New Testament. In cases of church discipline, Jesus says in Matthew 18:17, “tell it to the church,” not simply to the elders. And in 1 Corinthians, the decisive work of excommunication from the congregation should be done when the whole congregation is assembled. It is important, we at Cities Church think even essential, that the congregation of those who are born again be the final authority under Christ and his word in the local church.
And alongside this place for the congregation, there is this strand of teaching in the New Testament about the people in a healthy church being inclined to trust and follow, even obey, their leaders. * 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” * Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
So good church leaders labor for the true joy of their people. They dearly love the flock of the Good Shepherd. And a good congregation respects and trusts its leaders. Love and respect. There is a marriage-like dynamic in a healthy church: love and respect, humble initiative and glad submission. Neither the church nor its leaders act alone, but together.
One more thing to note here in verses 3–5 is the qualifications, simple and yet perceptive. Verse 3: “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”
It is crucial that the officers in the church, those recognized officially in roles of servant leadership be “of good repute.” Later on, in 1 Timothy and Titus, when Paul mentions qualifications for elders, the thing he says first and most often is that an elder must be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6, 7). Those who are recognized leaders in the church represent the church to the outside world (1 Timothy 3:7), and we want to take care that the reputations of our leaders do not bring reproach on the church by not being above reproach. God forbid that our leaders’ reputations would put an obstacle in the way of the gospel.
But they also must be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” which seems to be two distinct ways of getting at one essential reality. Come at it from the wisdom angle: the leader should be mature, with some measure of experience; they should be level-headed and trustworthy (1 Timothy 3 mentions “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable”). Or come at it from the Spirit angle: the leader should be spiritual, not carnal (Titus 1 mentions “upright, holy”).
We could see these three qualifications as a triad, getting at one essential reality from three perspectives: of good repute, full of the Spirit, and full of wisdom. A good reputation in the community, in the church and outside. A spiritual person, in awe of God’s holiness and thrilled with his grace. And full of wisdom, mature, experienced, and trustworthy.
3. The Appointment (verse 6)
These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Now for the most important disclaimer for this passage: This is about the unique apostles and the original Seven, not elders and deacons — not yet. There are leaders here whose central task is communicating the word of God. And there is a second group of recognized leaders appointed. But these are the Twelve and the Seven, not elders and deacons. And yet, there is a pattern here.
When the apostles eventually are off the scene, and no longer speak as living voices for the risen Christ, the pastor-elders are left to teach the people the apostolic word captured in the apostles’ writings. The apostles taught the word of Christ; and the elders teach the word of Christ as taught by the apostles. And here in Acts 6, the Seven are given as a gift to the apostles and to the church to supplement the word of the teachers. It is essential that the church be led by teachers, and it is good for the teachers to have official help in serving the people. “Disciples” are literally “learners.” At the heart of the Christian faith is ongoing learning; and yet there is more that the church must be concerned with that just teaching and learning, even as central as it is.
Laying on Hands
What, then, is this laying on of hands? Verse 6: “they prayed and laid their hands on them.” We did it this morning as we installed Joe as a pastor for Cities Church. Throughout Scripture when you “lay hands” on someone, it is done for one of two purposes, for healing or for hurting, for blessing or cursing. The origins are in the Old Testament. The priests laid hands on an animal to pass the curse (Exod. 29:10, 15, 19; Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33; 16:21; Num. 8:12), or even on a person (Lev. 24:14). Also the laying on of hands was an act of blessing in appointing priests to formal service (Num. 8:10), as when Joshua was appointed Moses’s successor (Num. 27:18).
In the New Testament, Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (Matt. 19:13; Mark 10:16). He laid his hands on the sick to heal them (Matt. 9:18; Mark 5:23; 7:32). In Acts 9, Ananias lays hands on Paul to restore his sight, and in Acts 28, he heals through putting his hands on a man named Publius (28:8). Also in Acts, the blessing of the Holy Spirit is received through the laying on of the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:17, 19; 9:17; 19:6). And in four New Testament texts — Acts 6:6 being one of them — the laying on of hands accompanies prayer to God for particular help in regard to some specific ministry role (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14, and 1 Tim. 5:22). (1 Timothy 5:22 is the office of elder and essentially an “ordination”; 2 Timothy 1:6 is commission to formal ministry.)
So the laying on of hands here in Acts 6, and as we’ll see in Acts 13:3 — and as we did here this morning — is a way of signifying our blessing of the appointment of this particular person for some specified ministry, and with it, praying for God’s blessing on this appointment with the help of his Spirit. In laying on hands, we’re also showing that this person is official, they represent us, whether through teaching or through service of some type.
Which relates to verses 8–15. When Stephen is ordained in Acts 6, appointed as one of the Seven, through prayer and the laying on of the leadership’s hands, he becomes one of the church’s representatives, and with it becomes a target in a way that he would not have been otherwise. Acts 6 is like Stephen’s Palm Sunday. In being appointed as an official, he rides into the view of the same Jerusalem leaders that killed Jesus and will soon kill him. We’ll follow his passion in the weeks ahead.
So, we’ve seen the complaint, the decision, the appointment, and now finally, the effect.
4. The Effect (verse 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.
Now comes the confirmation in verse 7 that the apostles acted wisely in taking this course. In not neglecting the word of God, by appointing the Seven to serve tables and serve unity. The gospel was “increasing” in verse 1. A conflict arose; a decision was made; seven were appointed; and now in verse 7: “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.”
One way to say what we’ve seen here is that good leaders know how to get themselves out of the way, while at the same time keeping their gospel teaching central. Good leaders take self-sacrificial initiative to prepare the path for the advance of the word, and to rescue the church from the times we gum up the channel of gospel flow with the debris of our disunity.
And last, but not least, don’t miss that amazing little appendage at the end of verse 7. This is the high point of the passage: “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Even the priests! With good leadership in place, not only did the number of rank-and-file disciples multiply, but even leaders from among the opposing group were being won to the gospel. This is no throwaway line from Luke. This is the summit of the good news in this text. God gives his church good leaders, who make good decisions in the midst of emerging conflict, to the effect that even leaders from the side are won over to the church. When godly leadership acts to preserve the voice of God as the central and energizing and rejuvenating source of the church’s life, even leaders from the opposing camp may be won.
May God make it so in these Twin Cities. As hostile and hard-hearted and seemingly impossible as it may seem with those who lead the opposition against the gospel, God can win them. God won the priests. God won Paul. God can give to us today from among the priests of progressivism when he so chooses. He can make worshipers of society’s secular elites.
Let’s ask not hesitate to ask him even for the priests.