Prepared for Service


Introduction: The text begins, “Now in these days.” This is an indefinite statement that locates the selection of these table-servers sometime after the release of the apostles when they had been forbidden to “speak in the name of Jesus” (5:40, 41) and during the days when they were “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (5:42). It narrates a specific event that led to the establishment of a designated officer of the church, deacons. Though the level of intimidation was high, the growth of the church still was strong as “the disciples were increasing in number.”

I. “A complaint by the Hellenists arose” – There will be no complaining in heaven. We still are in a fallen world, seeking to find unity with fallen people who share in the redemptive favors of Christ. The passage puts no blame on any particular group in this event, but, as in most occasions like this, it is to be shared.

A. The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews. Perhaps there is some resistance to them among the Hebrew speaking Jews, for it seemed that they had compromised their cultural heritage. Protection of Jewish heritage gives an edgy context to virtually the entire New Testament context. We see it operative in the ministry of Jesus and then this contentiousness followed the Apostles throughout their ministries.

B. Paul has to confront the soteriological dangers involved in an absolute adherence to the ceremonial law as required before one could embrace the Jewish Messiah. He had to say to the Galatians, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything but only faith working through love.” On the other hand, so as not to give offense unnecessarily to Jewish adherents among whom he would seek an evangelistic opportunity, he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).

C. This neglect, therefore, might have arisen from some prejudice, or perhaps an over-sensitivity from the Hellenists; at any rate, it showed that the “daily distribution” had become too large and unwieldy and bore the danger of disunity without more refined administration of the task.

II. A meeting is called. The presentation of the agendum for this meeting gives important information about the perceptions of church ministry.

A. This was a meeting of the “full number of the disciples.” None who had been taken into the body of believers by profession of faith and baptism were excluded from knowing about the issue and participating in a solution in an appropriate way. At this point the decision to be made involved every member of the gathered church.

B. It involved something that was not “pleasing” or “desirable” for the apostles to continue to do. Herod’s killing of James “pleased” the Jews (Acts 12:3); Jesus said, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him [the Father].” The word derives its force from the context of the audience to be pleased. To be “pleasing” before God means to conform to the pleasure of his will. It would not please God for the apostles to forsake their position of expositors of the word in light of the revelation given them in the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ. Two good things were creating tension, even conflict with each other. The solution points to a two-fold purpose in Christian ministry.

1. The ministry to the needy must be continued. People, therefore, with the necessary qualifications of compassion and understanding of the spiritual purpose of the church must be selected for this office. This continued to be a concern for the church in meeting the needs of widows. Paul gave a more nuanced regulation on this issue in 1 Timothy 5:3-10, 16b.

2. The apostles must continue their ministry of the word and prayer (4). This calling of the gospel minister involves hard labor—flesh-mortifying attention to close study,  searching out the glory of God as well as the places where indwelling sin lurks in the heart, and laying all of these before God with a self-crucifying earnestness that God’s glory might reign. It must not be minimized or viewed as formalized disengagement. The investment of hard and long hours in the text of Scripture for the God-called minister pleases God and is a health-giving gift to the church. Paul told Timothy that the gift he had been given, he was not to neglect. What was that? He had the duty of exhortation and teaching which he was to do with all his energy for the sake of his hearers, as well as the health of his own soul. His task of giving true exposition, “rightly handling the word of truth,” was that of a workman (1 Timothy 4:13-16; 2 Timothy 2:15).

C. The qualifications pointed to this mundane task as a deeply spiritual ministry. They were to be men full of the Spirit and of wisdom.

1. They had to be known by the entire assembly to some degree (“pick out from among you”), and so had already been active in assisting the apostles in a variety of ways, and, in this labor had been effective. They were of “good repute,” known by the church for their integrity and their spirit of service to the glory of God.

2. Their being full of the Spirit meant that the Spirit’s work in their lives was evident.

Because the Spirit’s operation relates so much to Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:9-16; John 16:12-15), we may be sure they loved Scripture, saw with clarity the glory of Christ in the Gospel, understood how the Old Testament was fulfilled in the person and redemptive work of Christ, and were growing in conformity to the moral image of Christ. Their knowledge is shown by Stephen’s sermon in chapter 7 and Philip’s interaction with the eunuch from Ethiopia in 8:26-39 and in his preaching tour described in 8:40.

Also they showed a deep regard for the well-being of all the members of the body of Christ and a boldness for the cause of the gospel, even with the possible consequence of loss of life. They took seriously their rescue from darkness, loved the light of the gospel and sought the wisdom that manifests itself in worship and holiness (Ephesians 5:11-21).

Note how this is illustrated by the further descriptions of Stephen. He was “full of grace and power” (verse 8) and was doing “great wonders and sign among the people.” When he spoke to those who opposed his work “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking (verse 10). When his accusers looked at him, they saw “that his face was like the face of an angel” (verse 15). When he finished and the whoe group was enraged and arrayed themselves against him to kill him, Stephen “full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55). At his stoning, he uttered words like those of Christ on the cross in emulation of his perfect trust in the will and providence and redemptive purpose of God (verses 59, 60).

3. [Full ] of wisdom. This must be seen in light of the words about wisdom in Proverbs and in James 1:5-8; 3:13-18. This is a person who has confidence in full truthfulness of Christian truth, and does not waver in his confidence in the sovereign goodness of God. His wisdom is displayed in meekness, lack of selfish ambition and jealousy, and avoidance of boastfulness. If he were that way he would create disorder rather than unity. His wisdom is first pure, both morally and in commitment to truth. Then it is peaceable. He does not, therefore, establish peace at the expense of either holiness or truth, for those are first, but he seeks peace in ways that establish the priority of truth and virtue. He is gentle, open to reason in is discussion of issues that might arise, while always referring any reasonable discourse to the word of God. As a person who has received mercy, he himself must be merciful, seeking restoration of the fallen, comfort for the downhearted and grieving, and again, in the context of true purity. His life manifests the fruit of the Spirit (“good fruits”) in increasing measure (Galatians 5:22-26). His sincerity and impartiality creates a climate for righteousness and peace in the congregation.

III. The manner of their choosing involved the entire congregation and their task was defined by the apostles.

A. Note the language that points this out.

1. They called together “the full number of the disciples.”

2. They instructed this group to “pick out from among you” seven men.

3. Their proposal “pleased the whole gathering.”

4. “They chose,” that is, the whole gathering had a hand in the choosing of these men to be set aside for this specific task.

B. The position was defined by the Apostles and they set these men apart for the task.

1. Verse 3 says, “whom we will appoint to this duty.” Verse 6 says, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”

2. Since the position was of apostolic institution and was aimed at a continuing need that the church would have through the ages, this providential event developed into a revelatory establishment of the second officer of a well-ordered church, the deacon. See these two officers described in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus. Paul indicates the absolute status of this in saying in verses 14, 15: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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