The new church has faced persecution from the outside (with more promised to come) and sedition from the inside (with dramatic removal of the problem), but now faces an issue that perhaps threatens it more than either. As a result of its incredible growth a problem arises with its distribution to the poor – an area that to this point has been one of its greatest strengths. The problem is large and must be addressed, but the solution to the problem has the potential to do more damage than the problem itself. The apostles must confront an issue that threatens both the unity and the ongoing effectiveness of the church and they must do it in a manner that does not derail the work Jesus charged them to do.
The church is known for its ongoing charity to the poor. According to 4:34 the believers have actually eradicated poverty within the group because of aggressively and sacrificially giving to meet the needs of the poor. The apostles themselves oversee the distribution of goods and money (4:35) as people whose lives have been transformed by the gospel lovingly reach out to the hurting and needy among them.
The church, however, continues to grow and has become a very large group. As it has grown the responsibility for overseeing the care of the poor has grown beyond what the apostles can handle while they teach and lead the body. The logistics of daily ministry to an ever growing multitude of the poor are now so large and complex that it is not surprising that a problem arises.
The Greek Jews (Hellenistic Jews) complain that their widows are being overlooked in the daily serving of food. Widows have no means of providing for themselves so the church feeds them daily. The Greek widows, however, are not provided for in the same way as the native Jews. Their needs are the same but the church overlooks them and apparently serves the Hebrew widows only.
The neglect of the Hellenistic widows is likely unintentional. The text does not seem to imply that malice or racism is involved. It is likely caused by language or cultural differences. Perhaps the majority Hebrew group that speaks Aramaic is not aware of the need or has miscommunicated its intentions. If that is the case the complaint may catch the apostles by surprise.
It is encouraging in perhaps a morbid way that the new group is not without troubles. Ananias and Sapphira and now this murmuring show that even the first church has its issues. Anything involving sinful people – even redeemed sinful people – will have conflicts and problems. In this case there are thousands of people from all different walks of life and cultures all thrown together in one place and coexisting. It is not surprising that something like this comes up. What IS amazing is that God leaves His gospel – and the responsibility for spreading it – to fallible people who continually have issues to sort out. The greatest news of the greatest act of all time is left in the hands of weak and sinful humans. And sometimes it gets messy – but the Spirit works even in messy situations.
That is why we should not be discouraged when difficulties crop up in the groups we are in. Any time people are together problems have the potential of arising – it is simply one of the effects of sin (the Bible verse could read – “Where two or three have gathered together…there is sure to be an interpersonal problem”). If the first Christians living under the teaching of the apostles and witnessing signs and healings have interpersonal issues, we should not be surprised when we have the same (this is not to excuse sinful behavior among Christians – just to acknowledge that sin is never absent when human beings gather). God knows who and what we are and He uses us anyway. The first church has problems and the last church will have problems. We can thank God that He knows this and remains faithful nonetheless.
From that standpoint it is neat that God includes stories like this in His word. The Bible is not a book of super humans living perfect lives that are beyond all of us. The Bible is a story of a great God who ministers through sinful people. One of the evidences of the truth of the Bible is its presentation of people warts and all – real people living real lives of both failure and triumph. Our God has a documented history of achieving His purposes through people just as messed up as we are – and He knows it is encouraging for us to know that.
The problem the Hellenist Jews present has three dangers. The most obvious is that the Greek widows may go hungry as they depend on the church for their livelihood. Secondly, the unity of the church (which Luke has trumpeted numerous times in his descriptions of the believers – 2:42-44, 4:32, 5:12) could suffer because of the division between the Greek and Hebrew Jews. Lastly – and perhaps most dangerously – the direction of the church could be threatened by the apostles becoming distracted from ministry as they address the logistics of caring for the poor.
It is a sign of how important the apostles think the complaint is that they assemble the entire congregation to address it. The church takes providing for those who cannot provide for themselves very seriously (James 1:27). Up to this point the distribution to the poor has worked well (4:34), but if there is a problem it needs to be addressed soon so no one goes without. Also – anything that threatens the gospel-based unity of the church must be fixed immediately.
The Spirit-led apostles seem to instantly see all aspects of the problem. They know something must be done so the widows are not overlooked but they also know they cannot be the ones to directly take care of the problem. Their effectiveness in the church and the spread of the gospel would both be hampered by their being taken away to serve the poor. They say to the congregation, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”
To manage the problem they direct the church to select seven men of good reputation, full of Spirit and of wisdom. These seven men will oversee the logistics of feeding the poor. They will do directly what the apostles cannot – manage the whole process. It makes sense that these seven will actually oversee many others as the small number of them cannot be expected to fulfill the needs of presumably such a large group.
The men must have three characteristics – of good reputation, full of the Spirit, and full of wisdom. The men must have proven themselves in how they live in the community. They must be well-thought-of and have shown the presence of the Spirit in their lives. Their conversion must be unquestioned and their wisdom in living and leading obvious. They must be practically minded and spiritually aware.
The high standards the apostles set for the selection of the seven men show they do not think serving the poor is a low-level job that is beneath them. The seven will be leaders in the church and will handle one of the most important functions of the group. At least two of them will go on to be hugely important in the defense of the faith and the spread of the gospel. The apostles simply know what Jesus called them to do – proclaim the gospel. If they take time away from that to serve the poor then they turn the new movement into just a social organization with no underlying purpose. They are called to the gospel and to prayer – “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” – while the seven will be called to serve the poor.
That said, the seven are not called to a relief ministry with no theological responsibilities. Nor is it assumed that prayer is not as important to them. One of them will be so effective in his teaching that he will become the first martyr. Another will have an evangelistic ministry that extends far beyond Jerusalem. These are not low-ranking men called to menial tasks. They are Spirit-empowered men called to live out the gospel through service to the poor. They have a different calling but the same character and commitment as the apostles.
The church members respond favorably to the apostles’ direction. They select seven men and bring them forward. All of the men selected are Greek (all have Greek names) so they are uniquely qualified to make sure the Greek widows are served. The apostles commission them by praying and laying their hands on them. The issue is resolved and the distribution to the poor will now be managed by men who can address it full time.
The results of the selection and of the apostles continuing to fulfill their call are dramatic. The word of God – the very thing the twelve said they could not neglect – continues to spread. And the number of disciples continues to increase greatly in Jerusalem. Even more – and how amazing this is – a great many priests become obedient to the faith. The Spirit is so powerful in the church that the gospel message even attracts a large number of priests. Priests who are likely predisposed to reject the movement instead become part of it. Luke writes this to make the reader aware of how much God blesses the solution the apostles directed. The Spirit-led apostles refused to be distracted from the priority of the gospel and the Spirit affects every level of society in Jerusalem as a result.
As an aside – imagine how the conversion of a large number of priests is received by the high priest and the rest of the Sanhedrin. Their attempts at stamping out the Jesus-movement have been completely ineffective and now even their subordinates are becoming part of it. It is not hard to imagine that this development makes them feel more threatened than ever and more determined to do anything necessary to stop the church. This likely goes a long way to explaining their treatment of Stephen when he is arrested.
- The word of God and prayer are vitally important to every believer. Even if we are not called to full-time ministry, this text shows the priority they should have in our lives. If the word of God and prayer are important enough that the apostles make them their full-time vocation, then it makes sense that the two should take a priority in any Christian’s life. This is certainly not an earth-shattering or novel lesson to take from a biblical text, but just the same it is a good reminder that nothing should be more important in our lives than knowing our Creator and Redeemer through His word and through prayer.
- There is no such thing as an unimportant duty within the body of Christ. The seven men are chosen to do what on the surface appear to be fairly low-level jobs. Yet they are held to the highest level of character and reputation. And as stated above, we know that two of them – Stephen and Philip – will have active ministries that are beyond their original job description. The apostles do not choose other men because serving tables is beneath them – they choose the seven so they do not get distracted from their calling. There are different gifts and different ministries in the church – but there are no parts of the body that are unimportant.
- Providing for the poor must never trump spreading the gospel. Jesus said His followers will be known for their benevolence (Matt 25) and it is impossible to preach to a starving man. But the great commission is to make disciples. No one will go to hell because of poverty. If the church places a priority on social work over the gospel it loses its way. The love of God compels us to provide for the needy but we must never forget the biggest need of any man is to hear and believe the gospel.
- Satan stops at nothing when he attacks believers. Here he takes what is an otherwise wonderful ministry of the church and uses it to tempt the apostles away from what should be their priority. He not only disrupts the unity of the church with the complaint, he presents a solution that could have destroyed the effectiveness of the whole movement. It would have been very easy – and perfectly understandable – if the apostles had decided to put a higher priority on distribution to the poor and spent more of their time overseeing it. But in so doing they would have done just what the Enemy wanted and instantly retarded the spread of the gospel. Satan is active and incredibly devious and will not stop fighting the gospel and gospel-believers until he is destroyed. We are foolish when we do not regularly pray for protection from him and naïve when we are surprised to find him active in our lives and groups.