Mercy Ministers

Sermon by David Strain on Aug 4

Acts 6:1-7

Well do please take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to the Book of Acts, chapter 6; Acts chapter 6. As you probably know, and you heard Wiley mention this earlier, here at First Presbyterian Church our elders have determined that we are in need of additional deacons, so we are in the middle, we are in the throes of a season of discernment as we prayerfully consider qualified men to dominate for training and election to the diaconal office. Now next week, God willing, we will begin a new series of sermons in 1 Peter as we think about the new teaching theme for the year. We’re rolling out that theme Wednesday night, so a little infomercial. You don’t want to miss Wednesday night, Vision Night. We’ll be talking a lot about what God has done in the year behind us and thinking about what we pray the Lord will do in the year ahead. There will be a ministry fair so if you would like to know how you can plug into the life of First Presbyterian Church that’s a great opportunity to do it. I think the whole evening will be an immensely encouraging time for you. Even if Wednesday night isn’t something you’re normally able to get to, please make an effort to join us for that. Okay, end of infomercial; back to your regularly scheduled programming! 

So next Sunday, God willing, we’ll begin a new series related to the teaching theme. That means this Sunday is a stand-alone Sunday, and I thought it might be useful given the season we are in, as we think about nominating deacons, to go back and look at what the Scriptures have to teach us about the office of the deacon and his character and qualifications to help us as we prayerfully consider who to nominate and to elect. And so to do that, we are going to be in Acts chapter 6 together; page 914 in the church Bibles. And you remember the context and something of the circumstances. There is a crisis that has threatened to divide the church in Jerusalem related to the daily mercy ministry. The scale of the church has grown and grown and there’s a logistical problem now. We see the church struggling to meet everyone’s needs fairly and some were being neglected and it’s causing real division. And the solution the apostles identify is to appoint seven men, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to take charge of this area of mercy ministry particularly. The word for deacon is not used in these opening six verses or so, but the verbal form of the same word is used and the ministry in which they are engaged in is a diaconal ministry. And so in my judgment, what we have here in Acts chapter 6 is the institution of the office of a deacon. And close examination of it together, I hope, will be a blessing and a help to us.

So take your Bibles and turn there. In a moment we are going to pray and then we’ll read the text. Before we do that, let me give you four things, four headings that will shape our reflections on the passage that you can be on the lookout for as we read. First, in verse 1, we’ll spend some time thinking together about the crisis of mercy ministry; the circumstances that gave rise to the institution of the diaconate. The crisis of mercy ministry. Then in verses 2 and 3, the call of mercy ministry. Mercy ministry is the burden and calling actually of the whole church and every Christian, so we need to think about that and the role of the deacon in relation to the church and in relation to mercy ministry. The crisis, then the call, then in the third place, the qualifications for mercy ministry. If we’re going to have deacons, we need to know what sort of men they ought to be and the passage has some help there for us as well. And then finally in verse 7, the consequences of mercy ministry. There’s remarkable blessing that comes to the church in the wake of the apostolic faithfulness in appointing deacons to serve the church in the way that they do. So the crisis, the call, the qualifications, and the consequences of mercy ministry. Before we read the passage together, let’s pause and pray once again and ask for the help of the Lord. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, send us anew the Holy Spirit to illuminate our darkened understandings that we may indeed behold marvelous things out of Your law, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Acts chapter 6, beginning in the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“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. 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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

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.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

One of the things you will notice if you read through the opening six chapters of the Book of Acts - actually it goes much further than that - you’ll see a pattern emerging. There are waves of trouble for the church, some external, some internal, followed by waves of blessing. And the waves of trouble that come have an alternating pattern so that there’s trouble. Chapter 4, for example, there’s persecution from outside the church seeking to destroy its work and its witness as Peter and John are arrested. And that’s followed by a season of blessing. Then, in the first half of chapter 5, there’s an attempt to compromise the church’s integrity and witness from within this time as Ananias and Sapphira, who are two members of the Jerusalem church, they lie to the Holy Spirit about their giving. And then once again in the second half of chapter 5, the pattern shifts back again to persecution from outside the church. All of the apostles are arrested, they are beaten, and eventually released. 

And now here in our passage, chapter 6, the alternating pattern returns to internal factors as divisions arise that threaten to ruin the witness of the church yet again. John Stott, in his exposition of these chapters, suggested a possible title for his treatment of them. He calls them, “the strategy of Satan.” He says this pattern seems to indicate or suggest a definite strategy to undermine the effective witness of the church. Listen to John Stott. He says, “Now I claim no very close or intimate familiarity with the devil, but I am persuaded that he exists and that he is utterly unscrupulous. Something else I have learned about him is that he is peculiarly lacking in imagination. Over the years, he’s changed neither his strategy nor his tactics nor his weapons. He is still in the same old rut. So a study of his campaign against the early church should alert us to his probably strategy today. If we are taken by surprise, we shall have no excuse.”

Now that, I think, he’s to put our reflections on dominating and electing new deacons into its proper perspective. Doesn’t that help us understand what’s really at stake? There is a supernatural struggle, a war in which the church is daily engaged. And by locating the appointment of the first deacon in Acts chapter 6, right in the thick of satanic onslaught and opposition, Luke is reminding us that deacons are not mere officers of the organization whose primary role, you know, is to grease the wheels of the administration and keep the lights on around here. That’s a minor part of their work; it’s not the core of their business and it’s not why we need them most. Deacons are soldiers in the front lines of spiritual combat fighting with and for the cause of Jesus Christ, particularly in the arena of mercy ministry. And as such, as we’re going to see, they are vital for the health and the growth of the church. 

The Crisis of Mercy Ministry 

So let’s look at the passage together, Acts 6:1-7, and I want you to notice in the first place the crisis of mercy ministry. The crisis. You can see it if you look at verse 1. That’s an admirable summary of the situation. “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.” So in some ways this is indicative of blessing. Right? The church is growing rapidly. It’s an understandable, logistical consequence of extraordinary blessing upon the church. These are growing pains. You remember after Acts chapter 2 on the day of Pentecost Peter’s remarkable sermon. There were three thousand people added to the church that day. I’ve read some estimates that suggest by the time we come to Acts chapter 6, after waves of further blessing and growth, the church may have been around 20,000 members in the city of Jerusalem. So there’s significant administrative and logistical challenges. 

Now add to that the fact that the care of the poor and of widows has been a part of God’s call upon the life of His people from the very beginning and you’ll see how this whole problem has developed. Deuteronomy 10:18, the Lord declares of Himself, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow. He loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” So He naturally calls His people, Deuteronomy 14:29, “to ensure that the sojourner and the fatherless and the widow who are with you in your towns shall come and eat and be filled that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” Mercy ministry like this was always a part of His expectation for His people. And so naturally it becomes a feature of life in the New Testament church. 

We know for example from 1 Timothy chapter 5 that the care of widows in particular was a mark of the early church. If you were a widow in those days, as you perhaps know, you were exposed to particular social and cultural vulnerabilities - economic and social vulnerabilities. And the church, naturally and appropriately, responds to that need from its earliest days. That tells us some important things. It tells us, for example, that mercy ministry is not an afterthought, but rather it belongs to the DNA of the apostolic church, which I think should be a challenge to us as we think about how we love and serve those with practical needs in our midst.  

Now the problem in Acts chapter 6 arose because the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of that mercy ministry. That is to say, there were Christian widows who, though they were ethnically Jewish, shared a predominately Greek language and culture. They were Hellenists and they were increasingly unable to get the help that they needed, perhaps because the apostles who were trying to oversee all of this were themselves Hebrews. And their natural connections and affinities were with the Hebrew speaking widows, the Hebraic widows. And so the Hellenists were being overlooked. They were getting missed along the way. And a complaint now has begun to develop and grow, threatening the unity of the church, tearing at its fabric. “Is favoritism being shown here?” the Hellenists perhaps were tempted to ask. “As we second class citizens? How is it that we are always the ones being neglected?” You can see the potential for real division. 

And again, it’s worth thinking about the devil’s strategy in all of this. If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, which I commend to you, you can almost imagine this coming as advice from a senior devil to a junior devil as they plot how to destroy the witness of the church. So here’s the senior devil: 

“Here’s the plan. Step one, capitalize on the natural, cultural, and linguistic affinities of the leaders to ensure that a minority in the church is excluded. Step two, sow division everywhere you can. Play on fears and historic prejudices. Step three, nurture those complaints and let them grow. Let the grumbling spread. Step 4, Philippians 2:14 tells Christians to ‘do all things without grumbling or complaining that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’ So, junior devil, if we can make them grumble and complain, if we can make them sound just as entitled and selfish as the rest of the world, well then maybe just maybe we can snuff their bright little lights out once and for all and ruin their witness. And step five, the coup de grace, let’s see if we can make their leadership panic enough about all this complaining and all this division and all this strife that they lose their nerve and they forget their primary task and responsibility altogether. You know, if we can get them so scared of some angry widows beating down their door, if we can consume their attention with logistics and pragmatics solutions, you know it may not be too much to hope for that they will give up praying and preaching altogether.”

That’s the plan. You can see it in the passage, can’t you? It’s a strategy the devil has deployed over and again in the life of the church. Perhaps you’ve seen it played out firsthand for yourself - exaggerate the tensions, sow division, generate complaints and grumbling, undermine the credibility of the church’s witness, and push the leadership off mission and off message so that they become preoccupied with pragmatic and organizational solutions instead of praying down heaven and preaching the Word of the Gospel. It is a crisis of mercy ministry. It’s not merely logistic. It could affect the entire witness and mission of the church.

The Call of Mercy Ministry 

But do notice how the apostles respond. Look with me at verse 2, please. They are wise to the enemy’s schemes, aren’t they? And so they gather the church together and say “I is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.” That’s the second thing I want you to see with me. First, the crisis of mercy ministry. Now, the call of mercy ministry. Whose task is this? Whose task is this? The apostles’ answer is brilliant. Let’s start with what they did not say. You see what they’re not saying here? They did not say, “It is not right that we should serve tables.” Do you see that? Look at verse 2 again. They didn’t say, “It is not right that we should serve tables.” They didn’t say, “Look, we’re apostles, don’t you know? This is beneath us. We have other things to be getting on with here!” Neither did they say, “Our priorities have shifted. We were engaged in mercy ministry but now we believe we should give up waiting on tables in order to do something else, something more important.” That’s not what they said. 
What did they say? “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word to serve tables.” You see the difference? The ministry of tables, this mercy ministry, has been our joy to perform from the very beginning and we love to care for the poor in our midst. But if the ministry of mercy becomes so complex and involved that there’s no longer time to focus on our true and ultimate priority - the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - then we’ve fallen short of our calling.” That’s what they’re saying. “And so our solution is to appoint the order of deacons.” 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

Now pause there for a moment. There are a number of principles - more than we have really time to expound in full, but I do want us to notice. I’ll mention just two. First, we simply need to let it register the fact that the leaders of the church are chosen by the membership of the church. Do you see that in the passage? The apostles summoned the full number of the disciples and said to them, “You pick out men for the work.” And we’re told later “the men they chose were Stephen,” and so on.  That’s why we have officer elections you see, and not merely officer appointments. It is the right and duty and sacred privilege of every member of the church of Jesus Christ, gathered in local assemblies, to select their own leadership. Which means that this whole business of officer nominations, that’s not just a procedural thing that we need in order for the good functioning of the organization. It is a sacred duty given to you by Christ Himself, the King and Head of the Church. It’s not something you can shrug and leave to somebody else with indifference. You must prayerfully shoulder the duty of seeking under God men to appoint or men to nominate to serve as officers.

And then secondly, and this is maybe a little bit more tricky, the second thing to notice here is that the higher offices in the church include the lower offices. The higher offices include the lower offices. What do I mean by that? Well think about it like this. Under the lordship of Christ, the apostles had absolute authority in the New Testament church. Right? And yet, 1 Peter chapter 5 verse 1, when Peter writes to the elders he does not speak of himself as apostle, exercising authority from above them, but he speaks of himself as a fellow elder. To be an apostle includes the work and functions of the eldership. Apostles are also elders, but elders are no apostles. Even if some of us who are elders wish we were! Don’t fire me for that! I don’t know where that came from, I’m sorry! I don’t have anybody in mind, honestly! But apostles are elders, but elders are not apostles. The higher office includes the lower office. And the same thing is happening here in Acts 6. The apostles, who are elders, are engaged in diaconal ministry. They’re doing the work of the deacons until it becomes so overwhelming for them that they need to delegate that authority to other officers and the order of deacons is instituted. So apostles are elders, are deacons, but deacons are neither elders nor apostles. 
That’s important to see because it shows us that the mercy ministry role of the diaconate is not an afterthought downstream from the core business of the church. That caring practically for one another as a community of the redeemed is not something we’ll get to after we’ve done our core business. No, this is part and parcel of the work of the church that the apostles embraced, that the apostles themselves embraced from the very beginning. That means that it belongs to every member and to every officer to take care of the people of God. And the role of the deacon is not to take it off our plate so that we don’t have to worry about it, but it is to help and to facilitate the mutual care of the whole church as we learn practically how to serve and love one another.

The crisis of mercy ministry. The call of mercy ministry. It’s a call now, do you see, that rests upon every Christian, every member of the people of God, on every officer in the Church of Jesus Christ from the apostle to the deacon. And the role, the particular role of the deacon is to facilitate and serve the whole church so that none of it gets lost or missed along the way, so that we can learn to love each other well and effectively.

The Qualifications of Mercy Ministry 

Then the third thing I want you to see here - the crisis, the call, then the qualification. So if we are going to have deacons, we need to know what they should be like. Who should we have to serve as deacons in the church? You can see the qualifications listed by the apostles for the church in Jerusalem. If you look at verse 3 again, “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint.” There are four characteristics mentioned here. There’s much more in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Please go home and prayerfully read over the 1 Timothy 3:8-13 passage as well. We’ll focus on the four in our text. First, the first qualification according to scripture for a deacon is that he must be a man - “men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” Secondly, they are to be “men of good repute.” That is to say, the congregation around them, the church, must recognize godliness, manifest piety and faithfulness and integrity in their lives. Being a good old boy isn’t good enough for office in the Church of Jesus Christ. Being around for a while simply is not a qualification for office. But godliness and a reputation for faithfulness to Jesus Christ in the little things - in your home life, in your business dealings, in your daily behavior, in your words, having a good reputation - that’s a core qualification. Character. Character is top of the list. We’re looking for men of God. Men of good reputation. 

“Full of the Holy Spirit.” I take that to mean simply that it is clear to the people of God that the Holy Spirit rules and has mastered them; that the fruit of the Spirit is clear in their lives. That the great defining mark of who they are is that the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ speaking in holy Scripture regulates and directs their life and behavior. Full of the Holy Spirit. And that, all of that together of course means that they must be men “filled with wisdom.” Deacons must be practically minded, skillful in the application of Biblical truth to the gritty needs and realities of life. That’s what wisdom means - living well under the lordship of the living God, according to the rule of His word. Wisdom. When the apostles say, “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” they’re saying something like, “Look for men who are so heavenly minded that they are of enormous earthly use.” Full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom - so heavenly minded that they are of enormous earthly use. We need to be praying for men like that. Don’t we? O Lord, give us men of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom. Give us men who will remind us, ultimately remind us of Jesus. Isn’t that what we’re looking for? Not perfect men, but men who keep short accounts with God, men who long to be like Christ, men who point us to Christ.

You remember in Isaiah 53, Jesus Himself is called “the Servant of the Lord.” The Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that the New Testament writers used, uses the word “diakonos” - deacon - there, for Jesus Christ Himself is the great Deacon of the Church and our deacons are to point us and to put us in mind of Him, help us to love Him more, and in His name love one another. Will you join me in praying that the Lord would raise up laborers for the harvest field like that? That is what the church urgently, urgently needs. 

The Consequences of Mercy Ministry 

The crisis, the call, the qualifications. Finally, the consequences of mercy ministry. What happens next? When a church is blessed with mercy ministers like this, what are the fruits? Well before we answer that, notice verse 5 first. Look at the men that the church chooses. It’s a remarkable list of names. Verse 5, “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.” These men are likely all Jewish, except for Nicolaus who was a Greek who became a convert to Judaism, a proselyte, and then later became a Christian himself. The key thing to note about that list is that none of them have Hebrew names. They all have Greek names. They’re all Hellenists is the point. Isn’t that remarkable! 

Think about the problem in verse 1. The Hellenistic widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of the mercy ministry of the church that this Greek minority in the Jerusalem church was being overlooked. And so when the solution of the apostles was presented to the Jerusalem congregation - “Let’s gather some deacons to serve us” - doesn’t it speak wonderfully of the love of the Hebrew majority for their Greek-speaking, minority brothers and sisters, that the men they chose were all Hellenists, not Hebrews? I’m not sure they could have demonstrated their commitment to one another more wonderfully or more graphically than they did. The majority picked officers all of whom came from the minority and gladly submits to their authority and follows their lead and receives from their hand deeds of mercy and kindness. It’s a beautiful thing. Satan doubtless intended to sow strife so as to ruin the witness of the church, but instead, in His great kindness, God brought new unity and demonstrated Gospel love and marvelously preserved - do you see it - in such a balanced way both the ministry of prayer and of the Word and mercy ministry so that neither was sacrificed for the other. 

And look at the result in verse 7. Is it really a surprise that the Word of God, now then therefore “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.” What was the consequence of faithful, diaconal work in the Jerusalem church? Well, it was to free up the ministers of the Word so that the unencumbered Word might increase. That is to say, its reach and its effect grew and grew and grew. And when people looked at the Jerusalem church and they saw how they cared for one another and made provision for one another, they saw a powerful apologetic defense of the reality and the truth of the Word of God that the apostles were preaching. All men could see that these were Christ’s disciples by their love for one another. Because of an effective diaconal ministry in the church, the world, looking on, saw something extraordinary they could see nowhere else - the community of the redeemed loving and serving sacrificially those whom otherwise they would have no earthly business even caring for or regarding. What happens here is that the Gospel is both proclaimed and demonstrated from the church and in the life of the church. 

That’s what we’re called to, brothers and sisters. As we pray and look to God, we’re not looking for officers to administer business. God save us from so many meetings that we can’t do ministry. We’re not looking for that. We’re looking for men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, men who point us to Jesus, men of good repute who will love the flock of God and pour themselves out for us, caring for us, helping us care for one another, so that this church might provide an extraordinary apologetic, a defense of the truth of the Gospel. “Here! Here! Look here! Look at First Presbyterian Church! Here is what the renovating power of the good news can do! You see how they love one another?” That’s what we need. That’s what we’re to pray for. That’s what we’re looking for from our deacons. And so may the Lord be gracious to us to provide the men that we need under His blessing that the Word of God may increase and the number of the disciples may multiply greatly, even in our city too. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, we confess how easy it is when we think about elections and officers and the reality of meetings and so on, to conceive of elders and deacons in the church as administrative tools with a pragmatic purpose. Thank You that Your Word calls us to understand something else, something different entirely about them - that they are Your instruments for the advancement of the cause of Jesus Christ in our midst and in our city and all over the world. Please will You raise up laborers for the harvest, men of good reputation, of godly character, men full of the Holy Spirit, men of wisdom, because the fields are white unto harvest? Do it for the renown of the name of Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.

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