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What Deacons Are and Do

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 5, 2008

1 Timothy 3:8

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The Lord's Day Morning

October 5, 2008

Acts 6:1-7; I Timothy 3:8-13

“What Deacons Are and Do”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd ask you to turn with me to 1 Timothy chapter 3. We’re taking a break on our journey through the fourth book of the Psalms as we've been moving through from Psalm 90 to Psalm 106, and we're going to look at what deacons are and do, because next Lord's Day, God willing, we’ll begin to elect new deacons for this congregation, and it's good for us to pause and think about what God's says in His word that deacons are and do.

In 1 Timothy chapter 3, Paul gives us the qualifications for deacons and he tells us in one word what it is that they’re called to do. And you’ll see that word repeated in verses 10 and 13. This is described for us in Acts chapter 6, verses 1-7, where the word “deacon” is not used in its noun form in the proper form for the office, but the verb from which we get “deacon” is deployed there, and Acts 6 describes for us what New Testament deacons actually were involved in doing.

And we want to think about this today with a view to voting for those who will serve in this capacity. Before we read God's word, let's ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It is inspired, it is without error, it is true in all that it affirms. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It shows us the way of salvation which is by faith in Jesus Christ, and it shows us how to live. It doesn't just show us how we're to live as individual Christians or even in our families, it shows us how we're to live together in congregations. And as we consider the officers that You have granted to Your church, as we consider what they’re to be like and what they’re to do, we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word; to believe it and act upon it, and to have our consciences instructed by it and to act accordingly with it as we seek to identify those who will serve this congregation as ministers of mercy — deacons, servants of the Lord. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God beginning in I Timothy 3:8;

“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

[Then if you turn back in your Bibles to Acts 6, we’ll begin at verse 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. 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, Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from 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 thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Today my task is simple. I simply want to ask two questions and give a biblical answer. What are deacons, and what do deacons do? I'm going to try and give you a two-part answer to what are deacons. I’ll give you a one-part answer to what do deacons do, and we’ll draw this primarily from Acts 6 and from I Timothy 3, although there are other passages in the Bible to which we will turn to gain testimony for our answer.

I. What are deacons?

What are deacons? Well, here's my first-part answer: Deacons are men who desire to serve, who embrace the faith; and, they live the Christian life in an exemplary way, especially in being a model for tangible, concrete Christian love. Deacons are men who desire to serve. They desire to serve. They’re not men who simply want a status, they want to serve. They genuinely want to serve, and especially they want to show concretely and tangibly in their own lives and actions the love of Christ to the body of believers.

It's very interesting that twice in I Timothy 3…if you look at verse 10 and you look at verse 13, you’ll see the verb serve. Verse 10: “Let them serve as deacons.” And then he speaks of those who have served well as deacons in verse 13. Paul is not using that verb generically. Sometimes we will say, “Well, Bob served as the Rotary Club president,” meaning that he had had the authority of the president of Rotary and he had exercised the responsibility of the president of Rotary. Or we’ll say, “You know, Jim was the Chancery Clerk of Copiah County from 1969 to 1973, and he served as the Chancery Clerk.” Now that's a perfectly legitimate use of that term, and I want you to understand that Paul means that word much more specifically here. He literally means that these deacons serve! They don't just have the authority and exercise the responsibility: that authority and responsibility is in service.

Let me give you an example. Turn to Acts 6. In Acts 6, remember you have the Jewish Christian congregation in Jerusalem, and we learn from Acts 2 and Acts 4 that that congregation contains some people who are very wealthy and some people who are living in abject poverty; and, wealthy people like Barnabas literally gave all of their money to the church so that nobody in the church would be hungry, or wouldn't have clothes on their backs or a roof over their head. And there were very generous people in the congregation. They didn't do this because they were Socialists or Communists; they did it out of Christian love because they wanted to make sure that Christians were taken care of.

Why did they want to do this? Well, keep your finger in the book of Acts, chapter 6, but let me just tell you why they wanted to do this. You will remember there is this fascinating passage in the little book of James at the end of the New Testament, in James 2:15, where James says:

“If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace. Be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”

Caring for one another tangibly was a big deal in the early church. It was not enough to say that you were a Christian, to say that you had faith. Your faith was to be accompanied by and demonstrated in tangible Christian love so that what God had given you, you used for the well-being of your fellow Christians, especially when they were in need.

Now, in the book of Acts, chapter 6, the early church that had been very generous in precisely this way…the early church was obeying what James had said for them to do in James 2…but a problem arose. You see the problem described in Acts 6:1. The Hellenists (if you’re reading the English Standard Version) — that means Greek-speaking Jewish Christian widows. The whole congregation are Jews who have professed faith in Jesus Christ the Messiah. They are Christians now. They are all from Jewish backgrounds. But some of them speak Greek and some of them speak Hebrew or Aramaic, and apparently the Greek-speaking Jewish Christian widows thought that the Hebrew or Aramaic Jewish Christian widows were being taken better care of than they were, and there was tension in the congregation and complaints came to the Apostles. And the Apostles did something very interesting.

The first thing they said was, ‘It would not be appropriate for us to give up our focus on the preaching of the word in order to become personally involved in the care of these widows in the congregation who are in need.’ That lets you know how important the preaching of the word of God is. There are all sorts of churches today, my friends, that are awakening to the importance of Christians loving tangibly. I'm thankful to God for that. But in many of those churches there is a loss of emphasis on the preaching of the gospel.

Notice how the Apostles refused to let that happen. It's important to care for one another tangibly, but not at the expense of losing the primacy of the preaching of the gospel, and the Apostles say, ‘We’re not going to give up our work there.’

But notice what they also don't say. They also don't say, ‘You know, people's souls are more important than their bodies, and we're just going to have to leave them to do the best they can do, and we're going to preach the word.’ They say, ‘Nope, we're not going to give up focus on preaching the gospel, but we are going to raise up a whole class of officers in the church whose fundamental job is going to be to serve those tangible needs in the congregation.’ And so seven men are appointed. They’re not called deacons here, but undoubtedly the work that they are called to is the work that deacons later do when they are described by that title in the New Testament.

It's fascinating to me that the Apostles and elders are going to focus on the ministry of prayer and the ministry of the word, and the deacons are going to serve those widows and orphans and others in need in the congregation tangibly, so that faith is accompanied by works; so that belief is accompanied by action; so that expressions of love are accompanied by tangible love, and thus faith and works are going to be demonstrated in the very ministry of the church.

That's so important because very often we have it in our minds that deacons are “junior elders.” You know — it's a stepping stone. No. Entirely different job descriptions for the offices. In some churches…our Anglican friends and Roman Catholic friends, and Eastern Orthodox friends, they think that deacons are priests-in-training. In the New Testament, though deacons do become pastors …like Philip, who was one of these deacons, and he eventually became an evangelist, so it happens. In our own congregation many deacons have become elders, but the office of deacon is a very different office. It does a very different work than the office of the eldership. It is focused literally, we're told here, on serving. Look at Acts 6. They would be involved in the daily serving of food…in the serving of tables.

This really grips me, because you see what's happening here.

In this case, these widows have lost what? They've lost a husband, and that means that their children have lost a father. And if ever there were a time in the New Testament where you would expect God to say, ‘Now, look. Since these are women who are in need, who would be the logical people to minister to them? Women.’ That would be a logical thing. I mean — let's face it, my friends! When it comes to giving tangible care and showing tangible acts of love and concern in the church, 85% of it is done by whom? The women of our congregation. When it comes to serving us tangibly in times of need, overwhelmingly the women of our congregation do it. But isn't it fascinating that God says here, ‘No, no. Choose seven men.’ I just think that's glorious. Isaiah tells us that He is a husband to the widow; that is, when a woman loses the one who is her provider, God will in a special way care for her. And the special way that He seeks to care for those women here is that He is going to make sure that there are men who see it as their personal responsibility, privilege, joy and obligation, to make sure that those women are taken care of not just spiritually but tangibly, so that they have got food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, a roof over their head, protection in the community. God says, ‘I am going to appoint seven men to do that in the congregation.’ Deacons are those men who serve in that way. They have a passion for that service.

II. Deacons are godly, self-controlled, Christian men.

Secondly, deacons not only desire to serve, deacons are men who hold fast to the truth of the gospel, and deacons meet certain character qualifications. Look again at I Timothy 3, and especially look at verses 8-10 and verse 12. I've given you a hand-out that you may want to follow along in here, but very briefly deacons are godly, self-controlled, Christian men qualified by their desire to serve (we've just talked about that), and by their embrace of the faith and their proven character. They desire to serve, they are characterized by Christian orthodoxy, and by moral character, and that's the kind of men we want to elect to the Diaconate.

Look at I Timothy 3:8-10. They are what? Deacons “hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” That is, they embrace the faith. They are orthodox. And they are beyond reproach — that is, they have proven character.

Does this mean that all of these character qualities exist in a man without sin? No, or we’d have no deacons! The Christian church would have gone 2,000 years without deacons if the requirement was for men to be without sin. But they are beyond reproach. What does that mean? They are not guilty of such scandalous sin that would bring public reproach upon the church, and these character qualities have in some measure been worked in their lives by the Holy Spirit so that people can actually say, ‘You know, that man is a good example of a person who is a man of dignity. He doesn't speak out of both sides of his mouth. He's not a drunkard; he's not under control of substances like wine or drugs. He's not fond of sordid gain.’ It would be bad to put someone in charge of the benevolent care of the church who was fond of sordid gain; it might end up in his pocket! And these character qualities have been worked out in the man's life, and furthermore, he's a good husband and a good father. And if he measures up to those character qualifications, then he's got the qualifications to be a deacon. So we want to elect men to the Diaconate who possess all three of those qualifications.

They desire to serve, themselves. They’re not looking to tell somebody else to serve. My wife was having a conversation with a friend not too long ago who had been in a particular setting where there were a number of people who had been enlisted to serve, and that friend commented to my wife, “Yeah, we had all chiefs and no Indians.” Well, deacons want to be the Indians, not the chief. They want to serve. They’re not there to boss somebody else around, they’re there to do it themselves. They’re there to serve however they can. They want to serve the elders of the church so that the elders are set free to be involved in the ministry of prayer and the word. They want to serve the congregation so that their passion for sacrificial, joyful giving flows over into the congregation. They want to serve the congregation by showing how Christians personally care for one another concretely, tangibly, in time of need. It might be a tornado that comes through. The deacon — he wants to be the first one out helping his fellow Christian in time of need. It might be a financial problem in the home. The deacon wants to be the first one in that home to minister to a fellow Christian in time of need. He wants to serve, and he wants to lead not by bossing people around, but by being the example.

III. What deacons do.

Deacons are living examples of Christ's love. They command and lead the congregation in service, helping the church to demonstrate the love of Christ tangibly. In John 13, after Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, do you remember what He does? He says to them, ‘I'm about to give you a new commandment. Here it is. Love one another.’ Now let me ask you a question, friends. Is that a new commandment? It that something that nobody ever taught before Jesus? No, you’ll find it right in the Old Testament. You’ll find it in Leviticus, of all places! “Love one another.” What does Jesus say? “Love one another as I have loved you…As I have loved you, so you love one another, and by this will all men know that you are My disciples.” In other words He says to the disciples, ‘As you love one another concretely, you will bear witness that you are truly My disciples.’

What do deacons do? Deacons take that love command and they make it visible in the life of the church. They are men obsessed with showing tangible love in the congregation and encouraging the congregation to minister to itself in tangible love, and to reach out to those in need around in tangible love.

According to Jesus, there's no such thing as deedless love. Love always works. Real Christian love, gospel love, is made tangible in and by our actions, and therefore Jesus enjoins upon the church a love which is practical and tangible even to the point of meeting physical needs. And deacons supply the picture and the impetus for that kind of love in word and deed. It is absolutely important for the church's well-being to have an emphasis on the word and prayer, but also on tangible service to our fellow believers in times of need. And so the deacons’ work complements the elders’ ministry of prayer and of the word, and the deacon leads the local congregation in aid and relief because his office is an office of service and deed.

And that's what deacons are and do, and that's the kind of deacons that we need. May God bless His word.

Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, we bow before You today asking that You would give us these kinds of deacons. We pray that we would become more and more a gathered family of believers that genuinely cares for one another in the good times and in the bad times. We pray that this would be a congregation where no shut-in would ever be able to say ‘They've forgotten about me’ because there are deacons calling on them, checking on them. We pray that this would be a congregation where no one would ever say, ‘You know, when I lost my job nobody ever checked on me,’ because the deacons will be leading us to love and serve tangibly.

Heavenly Father, we pray that we would be a people of deed and truth, of faith and love, of strong belief in the gospel and good works that flow from it. And we pray for deacons that will be the very personal embodiment of that kind of glorious combination. We pray that this would be witness to all those around us that we have been changed by the gospel, transformed by the love of Christ, because we love one another as Jesus has loved us. All these things we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 585. This hymn could be a virtual theme hymn for deacons — Take My Life and Let It Be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

[Congregation sings.]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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