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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Church Service


“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."

Acts 6:7

When we started our journey through the book of Acts we considered the great commission that Jesus gave to his disciples. In Acts 1:8, he told them, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ The Holy Spirit had come. The disciples had been empowered. This band of Jesus followers had grown from ‘a group numbering about a hundred and twenty’ (Acts 1:15) to thousands of people – people just like you and me – who had believed the message about Jesus and so been saved from God’s wrath against the shortcomings and failure in their lives. At this present time, this growth of believers was taking place in the Israelite capital. It is recorded in Acts by a man named Luke. In Luke’s ‘former book’, so Luke’s Gospel, he ‘wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven’. Luke also included the great commission at the end of that account before Jesus ‘was taken up to heaven’ (Acts 1:1-2). There we have additional details. We are told that Jesus did something amazing for his disciples. ‘He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures’ (Luke 24:45). Do we want this?

Well let’s consider something else that Jesus said, that Luke also recorded. Luke 11:9 says this - ‘ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find…’ Will our Lord withhold this from those that ask him and truly seek him out? The record of the Bible tells us that he won’t. The records of the lives of believing men and women and children, over the subsequent two thousand years, confirm this also. Why? Because, ‘he who promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10:23). In Luke 24, Jesus reminded his disciples what the Old Testament writings were really saying - ‘the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day’. Then he adds, ‘and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’

In Acts 1-7, we are at this beginning. The growth of the church of Jesus Christ was spectacular but it was also limited. At that moment, it was almost exclusively confined to Jerusalem. Things are about to change but not quite yet. We are, as Acts 6:1 says, ‘in those days’ still; that initial period of growth ‘when the number of the disciples was increasing’ in such dramatic fashion.

How did we get to Acts 6? We finished Acts 5 and turned over the page! But ‘in those days’ is encouraging us to turn the page back. It is a verbal clue. Why was ‘the number of disciples… increasing’? It must be linked to the faithful activity described in the last verse of the previous chapter. There, the church leaders (apostles) were doing something. ‘Day after day… they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.’ Do we want church growth? Then we know what to do!

I also think that ‘in those days’ links us to the speech of Gamaliel, who was one of the members of the Jewish Council, which had opposed the apostles and their teaching. There was a measure of practical wisdom in what Gamaliel had advised his fellow councillors. They were so enraged against this teaching that they were having murderous thoughts. Their solution - to stop this message being delivered, was to stop the message carriers. It was so OTT!

I know that I have a big bill coming, in a few days’ time, from my mortgage provider. How can I stop it? I’ll kill the postman! Yes, it sounds ridiculous. That’s because it is ridiculous. It would have massive implications. No less so, in the lives of those who wanted to do away with the apostles and their message. Gamaliel realises the foolishness of this and also, in his mind, how completely unnecessary it was. He reminds them of previous groups that had burst onto the scene and then vanished. He says (Acts 5:38), ‘therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail’. Gamaliel though wiser than some of his peers has, like them, ignored the evidence. Underneath it all, he actually thinks that this ‘activity is of human origin’. In effect, to bring his speech into our time, Gamaliel has stood up and said, ‘don’t sweat it, – these people are going to go the way of Woolworths’!

Some of you younger ones may not remember Woolworths. When I was ‘a younger one’, everyone knew Woolworths. It was a retail business; a group of shops; rather like Home Bargains or B & M. Frank Woolworth opened his first UK store in Liverpool in 1909. His empire grew rapidly, and any town that didn’t have a Woolworths store was evidently just a village. In my youth, in the 1980’s, it was the go-to place for records – actual, physical copies of music – and posters of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. There were between 800 and 1000 stores throughout the land. It was a thriving business. Yet, only twenty, or so, years later, on 6th January 2009, the final one of its remaining 807 stores closed its doors - for good. Why? Because in 2009, very few people wanted actual, physical copies of music anymore. And no-one wanted a poster of Kylie and Jason together! Woolworths had failed meet the challenges that they as a group faced.

Why do I mention this? Because it’s relevant to Gamaliel’s acknowledgement of the reality that human organisations face. It’s relevant to the challenges that this new body of people faced. As we move into Acts 7, we are confronted with a new challenge. The church had already faced serious, outward opposition from its religious competitors, if you like, but this new internal threat, was even more dangerous. Along with the wonderful development, there was worrying dissatisfaction, because of injustice and inequality. How modern is the book of Acts?!

‘In those days’, the church was made up of, almost exclusively, ex-Jews; people who had previously used the Old Testament rules and regulations to help them navigate the rocky roads of life. These people now realised that those scriptures were not just teaching about the variety of paths that can be chosen. They had an underlying message about one particular path. That path was in the form of a person; a person who would come to earth and say, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ These people had believed the message that Jesus is ‘the way’ to God – that Jesus is the only way to God (as Acts 4:12). These Jews seem to have been made up of two distinct groups, which the NIV calls ‘Hellenistic’ and ‘Hebraic’. The NLT gives us a more explained interpretation here. It calls these groups, ‘Greek-speaking believers’ and ‘Hebrew-speaking believers’. This wasn’t two groups where one was Jewish and the other non-Jewish. Both groups came from Jewish communities. This wasn’t two groups where one had believed the apostles message and the other hadn’t. They were all believers. All of these people had been moved by God’s Spirit, from Judaism to Jesus. But, despite their similarities, there were also differences.

One group had its roots within the landscape of Israel. They were more inclined to retain the Hebrew language along with its accompanying traditions. The other group had roots from other parts of the known world, where the mighty Greek Empire of Alexander the Great had permeated the peoples and cultures that it had conquered in the preceding centuries. This distinction already existed in that society – it predated the forming of the church. This is confirmed to us in the second half of this chapter where Stephen’s life is opened up to us. He was a believer who was opposed by ‘members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen’. From the description given, this was evidently a ‘Hellenistic’ or ‘Greek-speaking’ group that even had their own separate synagogue. There is a lesson here for us. Society will always create distinctions between people groups. The church needs to guard against the thinking of wider culture; the ‘them and us’ mentality so fuelled by the tabloid press in our day.

In the early church, was one group better than the other? Was one group inherently closer to God than the other? I suspect that there would have been people from those groups that thought that, and possibly said that – because they were people. But God doesn’t say that. The Bible record doesn’t say that here. In fact, God’s word says the opposite. Our backgrounds are no grounds for us to make distinctions between people that come into the life of the local church body. Colossians 3:11 (NLT) says this – ‘In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.’ Galatians 3:28, gives us the final total of the number of groups that the church should really have, ‘you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

I sometimes walk past Dewsbury Minster. There is a very old plaque above the entrance doors which quotes Psalm 121:8 (AV), ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in…’ It’s a wonderful thought. But I still think we could have better above the door of our meeting place. We could have that list of distinctions from Colossians 3, that I’ve just read, and perhaps add a few of our own, and then have the awesome conclusion, ‘In this new life… Christ is all that matters.’ Because, when we join for fellowship, it isn’t the sweet wrappers in our pockets that need putting in the wheelie-bin outside, before we enter, but the rubbish that is often found in our minds.

Actually, here in Acts 6, I think the perceived neglect was unintentional. It was just something that had happened due to a lack of focused administration. The early church was good but it wasn’t perfect. Neither will our church life always run smooth.

I’ve another plant illustration this week. The first year that I grew sunflowers in my plastic greenhouse, I was amazed at their growth compared to previous years when the pots had been outside, exposed to the elements. I made a mistake and left them in there too long. When they came out they appeared to have had a massive head-start. They were already so tall but therein lay their weakness. They were tall, but consequently they were thin. They couldn’t support themselves in the garden. No gardener really minds tying their magnificent 2 metre sunflower to a bamboo cane, to show off its glorious display, but having to provide support when it’s only 30 centimetres feels a bit silly. The early church had grown really quickly in the spiritual-greenhouse conditions of the first chapters of Acts, but therein lay its weakness. Now, this body required support and the church leaders were called on to supply that support, in order to stop Gamaliel’s prophecy coming true. The church was crying out for leadership. The Lord, who always hears the cries of his people (as Psalm 34:15), gave them leadership.

There are some really useful passages in the Bible about the qualifications necessary for leading the church, and for officiating and serving in an administrative capacity. But if we want to know what to look for in times of crisis then there’s probably no better place to look than Acts 6. Good leadership is not the same as simply telling people what they must do.

I heard a really lovely statement about leadership this week. It grew out of the transformation of Liverpool Football Club in recent years. Liverpool FC is a very big club, in worldwide terms. Yet for thirty years they found it impossible to win the English league title. Then, in 2020 that changed. Liverpool were crowned Premier League Champions for the first time. This season they have played in four competitions. They narrowly finished runners-up in two of them and won the other two. In English football there has almost never been a more complete season by one club. But how did they go from no-hopers to having more cups than Woolworth’s kitchenware section? Leadership. They have been transformed by the leadership of their manager, Jurgen Klopp. He was interviewed this week. The interviewer was desperate to get to the bottom of how he had led this successful revolution, as so many people have been. Mr Klopp said this - ‘If you want to be a good leader, first and foremost, you have to be a good listener. If you are a good listener then you figure out what those people, which you have to lead, might need’. Those words could be put into any commentary on Acts 6.

The apostles didn’t unilaterally decide what the church needed and then tell them what they had to do. They did prayerfully consider the matter and they did propose – verse 5 calls it ‘this proposal’; it wasn’t a demand, or a command, it was a proposal. They didn’t just gather a select handful of people and put a solution in place, leaving everyone else in the dark. Verse 2 tells us that ‘they gathered all the disciples together’. They didn’t take matters into their own hands, and they gave their reasoning as to why they weren’t going to do this. ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.’ They were saying that ‘(us) apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program’ (as NLT). Not because this service was beneath them – absolutely not. They were already engaged in service, and it was full time service. What happens when a glass is full and we try to add more liquid? We get overflow and spillage; a mess on the kitchen floor. What happens when those serving in the church, in whatever way that may be (and we have to remember that some people’s cups are smaller than others) are engaged to the limits of their capacity, and we add more? We get overload and its inevitable consequence. We end up with a mess. And there was no reason to do this. This is one of the points that the apostles make. There were others in the church that had the necessary gifts to fulfil this administrative function – why not allow them to serve? Why add to the burden of service that the apostles already had by giving them another role, when there was clearly no need to do so? What does God’s word say on the matter? Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ’. Others could be chosen to fulfil this need. Others could be allowed to ‘fulfil the law of Christ’. One person, or a few leaders at most, taking in hand every role of service in church life is not the model presented here.

Elsewhere in God’s word there are listed requirements for the role of administrative service in church life. Here in Acts 6, there are only two given, but they are really, really important. In verse 3 the brothers and sisters were instructed to choose those known to be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’. They needed to be those who were manifestly spiritually minded…. ‘and wisdom’ – they needed to be practically minded also; able to apply knowledge to a given task. Would Jurgen Klopp, with his obvious skills be useful in the church? Would Gamaliel with his wisdom and application be good? No. Not unless there is also spiritual mindedness. I have seen churches fail because they made the error of believing that only one of these characteristics was needed. To choose someone to serve in an administrative capacity solely because they have fantastic organisational skills, knowing they lack spiritual mindedness and maturity has proved disastrous. And to appoint those who are spiritually minded but lack the necessary wisdom for the task can prove equally problematic.

But the church had people that were suited, and the church did the choosing. We are told that the ‘whole group’ was ‘pleased’ (v.5). This is really interesting. Why? Look at the names of the seven chosen. They are all Hellenists. They all have Greek names. The church wisely chose men from the group that would most likely be personally familiar with those widows that had previously been neglected. The Hellenists had felt excluded. The solution was to embrace the Hellenists. What an ongoing lesson there is for us here.

What happens when we takes steps to include, where it is possible to do so, and not to exclude when we can avoid it? Acts 6:7 answers that question before we get the chance to ask it! ‘So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’ Wow! Even some of those that were previously embedded in service under the Old Testament Law, chose this new path of truly faithful service. The Apostle Peter would later write about this in 1 Peter 2:5; not about converted priests, but about converted everyone; all believers. ‘you… are… to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ I’m sure these priests brought value to the church body – all God’s people do, in whatever diverse ways they have been gifted. They would now operate in service under a new law, which we’ve already touched upon, ‘the law of Christ’. However we are called to serve, what should be the biggest motivator? Christ. Jesus said this to his disciples (Matthew 20:26-28), ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus also says this, to every one of his believing people (as Matthew 16:24) – ‘Follow me’.


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