Monday, August 11, 2014

The Ministry of Faithful Deacons (Acts 6:1-7)

Last Monday evening, I had the joy of having dinner with one of my old professors. After we we were shown to our table, the server came up and said, “Hi. My name is Karen, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” Dr. Kaiser, who can be very funny, just looked up from his menu and said, “Well, that’s very appropriate you know. Your name is Karen, and you’re going to be carin’ for us.” And as our meal went on, every time she came back to the table, Dr. Kaiser would say, “There you go Karen, carin’ for us again.” And she was a really great server. In fact, later that night I got to thinking about Dr. Kaiser’s pun on her name. She was Karen, and she was very carin’. She seemed to really take seriously, and actually enjoy carin’ for us. And that can really make the difference in your enjoyment of the meal.

As I thought about that, I thought about the ministry of deacons. You might say, “Gee your mind is strange,” but we already knew that. Actually, it is not so strange at all. You see the deacon ministry was born in the context of serving food. In Acts 6, we read about the origin of this ministry that is so essential to every Christian church.

Let’s get acquainted with the scene here. It’s not long after Jesus has ascended into heaven. The apostles are giving pastoral leadership to the church in Jerusalem. And the church is growing. In fact, it is growing rapidly and exponentially. And whenever that happens, there are going to be “growing pains.” Anywhere you gather people together, you are going to have problems because, well, people got problems. I remember telling my pastor one time, soon after I started serving my first church, “I’ve got a hundred members and a hundred problems.” He said, “I’ve got 6,000 members. Want to trade?” I didn’t even pray about it. The church in Jerusalem grew by 3,000 members in one day. I bet they had trouble finding people to work in the nursery, don’t you? They’d already started carpooling so they’d have plenty of parking places. Remember the Bible says that they were all in one Accord in one place (Acts 2:1, KJV). If only the problems were that simple.

So, what was the problem here in First Baptist Church of Jerusalem? (What, you don’t believe it was a Baptist church?) Well, they had a “meals on wheels” program that delivered food to the widows of the church. And they had a lot of widows. And there arose a complaint (see, that’s not new) on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. OK, so what’s this all about? Who are these groups of people? The Hellenistic Jews are those who had adopted the Greek culture and innovations and Greek language. The native Hebrews were those who still spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic, perhaps) and held fast to the ancient Hebrew traditions and cultural practices. Let me see if I can illustrate that without offending anyone – I doubt it, but I’m going to try. Let’s say that there’s a group of Christians who come from a part of the world where people take their shoes off when they walk into a building. And then there’s a group of Christians who come from a place where they do not do that. These two groups of Christians have just joined the same church. So, you’ve got one group that probably thinks the others are not very spiritual because they come in and walk on the carpet with muddy shoes, and you’ve got another group who would like to enjoy the worship service without the additional aromas of their barefooted brethren. That’s a little bit of a silly example, but I hope you get the idea.

These two groups, the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews, are part of one church, and they have some very serious cultural differences between them. Now, some of the women may have been sitting around talking one day, and one of the native Hebrew women says, “Oh boy, that fried chicken and green bean casserole that the church sent over yesterday sure was good” (see, I told you it was a Baptist church). And one of the Hellenistic women hears this and says, “Well, I didn’t get any food at all yesterday.” She turns to her friend and says, “Did you?” And her friend says, “Yeah, but all I got was a can of SPAM.” And before you know it, we’ve got a full blown controversy on our hands. Now, aren’t you glad this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore? I mean around here. It still happens out west. So, what did the apostles do about it? They invented a new ministry. They aren’t called deacons here in this passage, but we know that this was the beginning of the ministry that eventually came to be known as deacons. The word deacon means “one who serves.” They are called that because in Acts 6:2, their ministry is described as “serving tables.” And the word for “serve” there comes from the same Greek root as the word translated “deacon” elsewhere in the New Testament.

So, most basically then, we need to understand that deacons are servants. Now, maybe you grew up in a church tradition in which deacons were viewed not as servants but as masters. They held all authority and made all the decisions in the church. But, no, in the Bible, a deacon is a servant. In our day and time, someone might take offense to us saying, “I’d like to have you as my servant.” But we must remember that the Lord Jesus Christ was not ashamed to be called a servant. In Luke 22:27, He said, “I am among you as one who serves.” And guess what that Greek word is for “serve” there? “Deacon.” He illustrated His servanthood when He humbled Himself in the upper room to take up the basin and towel to wash the feet of His disciples. But the ultimate demonstration of His servanthood came in the humble condescension of the Lord of Glory who became a man to meet our greatest need – that of salvation from sin by living for us and dying for us. He said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant (deacon); and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (deacon), and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:43-45). We are never more like Jesus than we are selflessly and sacrificially serving others in His name.

So, with all that said, let’s take a look here for a few moments at the marks of a faithful deacon ministry. We want to look first at the qualities of a faithful deacon, and then that the effects of a faithful deacon ministry.

I. The qualities of a faithful deacon

After determining that there was a crisis within the church, the apostles developed the plan for this new ministry of serving. They knew that the need was far greater than they could meet. After all, they had the responsibility as the spiritual shepherds of the church to feed the people on the Word of God and to lead the church from their knees in prayer. I can’t tell you how difficult it is as a pastor, with so many competing responsibilities, to simply find time to spend to be in undistracted study of the Bible and uninterrupted prayer. I think that busy-ness is one of the devil’s primary strategies to cripple the church. It is not that pastors should be inaccessible, cordoned off in some ivory tower to never be disturbed by others. But if the pastor does not discipline himself to the priorities of prayer and the ministry of the Word of God, he will not have a ministry or a church. So, these apostles made a decision to institute a new ministry to focus on care-giving, and asked the congregation to make a selection from among themselves of seven individuals to whom they could entrust this ministry.

Notice the three criteria that are specified in verse 3. They must be of good reputation, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom. Now, the first one of these requires very little explanation. We know what it means for someone to have a good reputation. If the brethren, the members of the church, are to select others to carry out this ministry, they must be well known among the members and they must have a good reputation. And essentially, their reputation must be known as being Spirit-filled, wise Christians.

What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Christians have differed with each other over the answer to this question for a long time. In fact, there are entire denominations that exist solely because they answer this very question differently. There is confusion about the term because of the similarity of a couple of English words that we use to discuss the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the fully divine third Person of the Triune Godhead. The Bible teaches that when a person is born-again, that is when they are genuinely saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and made spiritually alive in Him, the Holy Spirit comes immediately, simultaneously, and permanently, to take up residence within them. We refer to this as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Every genuine, born-again follower of Jesus has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Consider the following passages:
  • Romans 8:9 – “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”
  • Galatians 4:6 – “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’”
  • Ephesians 1:13-14 – “In Him [Jesus], you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”

So, when we speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and say that He lives in you, it would be easy to assume that this is the same thing as being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. But it isn’t. How do we know that? We know it because believers in the Bible are never commanded to be indwelled by the Spirit, but they are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. You don’t have to command someone to be something that they already are. Believers are already indwelt by the Spirit, but not all believers are always filled with the Spirit. In fact, I would argue that few, if any, Christians are always filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus, we have a command in Ephesians 5:18 to be filled with the Spirit, and the verb tense indicates something like, “be continually being filled with the Spirit.” The word “fill” can be used different ways in English. You can fill a glass with water. If being filled with the Holy Spirit means something like this, that kind of seems like we are talking about indwelling, doesn’t it? But we can also talk about filling as in, “the wind filled the sail.” The sail did not suddenly contain wind, but it was driven by that wind, controlled by it to go wherever the wind directs. And THAT is what we mean when we talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is to be under His control, moved along by His unction according to His purpose for us. It would be wonderful if this did not have to be commanded, but it does. So often we are driven by other things: our natural desires, our personal tendencies and inclinations, our selfish agendas, and the like. The Bible calls that being “in the flesh.” It is the opposite of being Spirit-filled. So, the command is to stop being driven by these things, and be controlled instead by the Holy Spirit who is already present within you, indwelling you.

The context of Ephesians 5:18 makes this clear. Paul says there, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation (or wastefulness), but be filled with the Spirit.” Now, we all know what it means to be drunk with wine. I mean, not from experience of course, but we’ve watched television, right? We know people, we’ve heard stories, right? Let’s just stick to that story, OK? When a person is intoxicated, they are no longer in rational control of their faculties. They have given away control of their thoughts and actions to another agent – the chemical that they have put into their body. Well, Paul says, “Don’t do that! That’s a waste! But, instead, give away control of your thoughts and words and deeds to the Spirit of God who is in you.” You’ve probably known someone who gets drunk and says or does something stupid and says, “That wasn’t me, that was the booze.” Blame the booze, not me! So, Paul is saying, “Be filled with the Spirit, and controlled by Him.” Then, when you do what He wants you to do, you can say in all humility, “That wasn’t me, that was the Holy Spirit within me.” Praise Him, not me!

So how do you know when a person is living under the control of the Holy Spirit? Well, we actually have a list to go by. Do you ever do those word-search puzzles that have the list of words off to the side, and then you go try to find those words in the jumble of letters in the box? So, we have one of those word lists in the Bible, and when we look at a person, we are looking for these things. The list is in Galatians 5, and is known as the fruit of the Spirit. These qualities are what the Holy Spirit produces in a person that is under His control: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the qualities we are looking for as we look for Spirit-filled deacons to serve the church.

Now, Paul also gives us, in the same passage, the indicators that the Spirit is not in control. If the Spirit is not in control, then the flesh, the natural man, is. And that is not a pretty picture. When the Spirit is not in control, Paul says that the deeds of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (the Greek word is porneia, from which we get pornography), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery (the Greek word is pharmakeia, from which we get pharmaceutical, and it probably has something to do with people becoming entranced by some chemical, or what we could compare to substance abuse), enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Now, any one of us could display those nasty things at any time in our lives, and those are indicators to us that we are not living under the control of the Holy Spirit. So, when we notice these things going on in our hearts and lives, we need to repent and return to the Lord and submit ourselves to the filling of the Spirit so that we can bear that beautiful fruit of the Spirit. But when we see those deeds of the flesh on regular and consistent display in someone else’s life, we know that we do not want that kind of person serving as a deacon. They don’t have a reputation of being filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s a fundamental criteria.

But they also must be filled with wisdom. There are a lot of people who are wise in the eyes of the world, but they aren’t Spirit-filled. And there are Spirit-filled people who lack wisdom. The two have to go together: Spirit-filled AND wisdom-filled. This is a spiritual wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10), and is built by understanding and applying the Word of God. A spiritually wise person is not the one who knows a lot of Bible trivia. Bible trivia is fun, but it won’t get you through a tough day. The issue is do you know the Word, and know how to apply the word to real issues – to see the issue through the lens of Scripture and know the spiritual roots and the spiritual remedy of the situation. That’s what deacons have to do as they serve the church. Remember that the soil into which deacon ministry was planted was that of church conflict and disunity. If a person lacks wisdom, they will just look for a quick fix, or they will make a decision based on some factor other than truth and righteousness. If we don’t have wise deacons, we’ll all be tripping over stuff that’s been swept under the rug of the church instead of dealt with in a biblical way.

You want a wise doctor, don’t you? If you go to the doctor and you say, “I have this terrible pain in my side,” you don’t want him to say, “Well, here’s a bottle of pills, and if you take 2 of them every six hours you won’t feel that pain.” No, you want a doctor who says, “Let’s get a CT scan and see what’s going on there and what we can do about it.” It might be that your appendix has ruptured and a fatal infection is spreading through your body. You might need surgery. Surgery is painful and recovery is slow and agonizing, but if you are going to be healthy, you might need it. You want a wise doctor who knows the difference between making your symptoms go away temporarily and permanently fixing your problem. So you need deacons who know how to assess a situation through the lens of Scripture and how to apply the remedy of Scripture to the issue.

Now, by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy, the office of deacon had become more well-defined, and he lists several specific criteria there in 1 Timothy 3. But, if you notice, really what he is doing is unpacking what it means to have a good reputation for being Spirit-filled and wise. He lists these criteria: dignity, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not fond of sordid gain, holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, dignified, not malicious gossips, temperate and faithful people, who have unquestionable integrity in their marriage (if they are married), who manage their children (if they have them) and their households well. But, all of this can be summarized in what Acts 6 says: having a good reputation for being filled with the Spirit and with wisdom. Those are the qualities we are looking for as we seek out faithful deacons.

II. The effects of a faithful deacon ministry

I enjoy a good meal. You probably guessed that about me, right? And there are two things that define a good meal for me. I need to leave the place having been well fed and well served. I imagine you might judge a restaurant the same way. Have you ever thought about your church that way? Maybe you should. This passage is telling us that we need to think about what we are doing here, and make sure that every member of this church is being well served and well fed. Those seem to be the effects of a faithful deacon ministry.

Notice here how the members were well fed. Now, I bet you think I’m talking about the fried chicken and the green bean casserole again. By this time of the service, that’s usually where some of our minds are going. Well, certainly, the deacons helped to meet the need of the widows who were being overlooked. They served tables, and the need for food was met. But, there was another, even more important kind of feeding that was able to take place because of the faithful deacon ministry. We see it in verse 2. The apostles said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables.” There’s a lot of work to be done in ministry. We are overwhelmed by needs and we need to prioritize so that the most important tasks get the necessary attention. Well, there were hungry people in that church. That was important enough to create an entirely new ministry. But it wasn’t important enough to take attention away from the ministry of the Word of God. Some of you might be thinking, “Are you saying that the Word of God is more important than the food we eat.” No, those words are not mine. In fact, they are the words of Jesus. He said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4). The intake of the Word of God feeds your soul in far more important way than the intake of food feeds your body. Now, they didn’t let anyone starve to death, but they made it very clear that the priority in the church is the ministry of the Word of God. And this will be one of the effects of a faithful ministry. A church that has faithful deacons will be a church that is well fed on the Word of God, because the pastors and teachers of that church will have the freedom to prioritize the prayerful study, the preparation, and the proclamation of the Bible. “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” If you want a well fed church, you need deacons who understand the priority of prayer and the Word and who serve the church in such a way that those ministries can be maximized.

The church is not just well fed but well served when a faithful deacon ministry is going on. First of all, and most obvious, needs are met. I mean, this is a pretty serious need. Widows, the most vulnerable members of the society of that day, were going without food! That’s a serious need. But by God’s grace, it was met as the deacons did their job. Our need may not be delivering food to widows – it may be; we aren’t ruling that out – but whatever the personal needs of the members of the church are, they need to know that in addition to the pastor, they have wise and Spirit-filled deacons that can help meet that need. That’s why every church member here is assigned to the care of a deacon. I’m not saying “Leave me alone and call your deacon.” I’m saying I can’t be in two places at one time, so you might need to be served from time to time by your deacon. And you need to know that they will do it.

There’s another way that the church is served here as well. It is unified by the deacon ministry. Remember that the problem wasn’t just that some people got food and some didn’t. That was part of it, but the other part was that it was about to split the church! A divided church is a major problem. Why? Because a divided church is a slap in the face of Jesus! Why would I make such a bold statement? Because I know what Jesus prays for. In the longest recorded prayer of Jesus in the Bible, in John 17, three times Jesus prayed for His followers to be ONE, unified in a reflection of the unity of the Triune Godhead. In John 17:11, He prayed “that they may be one, even as We are.” In John 17:21, He prayed, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us.” In John 17:22, He prayed “that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.” And He even said why this is such a big deal: the prayer is that His followers may be one in unity, “so that the world may believe the You sent Me,” and “so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You loved Me,” Jesus said. When the church is united, we show the world the power of the Gospel to unify diverse people under the cross of Jesus Christ. When the church is divided, the message that the world hears is that the Gospel is meaningless. So, deacons understand that a divided church sends a false message into the world, and they serve to unify the church under the banner of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I used to be a member of a church called United Baptist Church. We took a lot of kidding about that. People used to say it sounded like a contradiction in terms. That’s sad for churches to have that kind of reputation. It must break the heart of the Lord Jesus. But because there are so many gospel implications in church unity, Satan seeks to divide churches to strike at the Lord’s heart. Issues will arise that threaten to divide us. That’s a promise you can count on. But a church that is well served will have wise, Spirit-filled servants who labor to protect and preserve the unity of the body and prevent it from being divided.

Finally, there is one further effect of a faithful deacon ministry. Because the church is well fed on the Word of God and well-served in meeting needs and preserving unity, notice verse 7 that “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” When this ministry was put into place and faithfully exercised, those Christians who were well-fed on the Word of God became proclaimers of that Word, and it spread far and wide. People were impacted by the Gospel. Multitudes were saved. In fact, even the leaders of another belief system were being converted. I said this in the newsletter this month. Wouldn’t it be great to see the headlines in the News and Record tomorrow? “Word of God Spreading; Disciples Increasing.” Here in the article, there’s an interview with a former Jewish rabbi, a former Muslim imam, and a former Hindu guru who were saved by Jesus Christ! It sounds like a joke doesn’t it? A rabbi, and imam and a guru walk into a Baptist Church. … And then they got saved! Amen! But that is what happens when a unified church is well fed and well served.

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