The twelve apostles gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables…” Acts 6:2
The church has just been born. It’s growing day by day – people coming to faith in Jesus as the twelve apostles preach and teach in his name. The momentous coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is still vivid in people’s memories.
Great days! – exciting, perhaps even slightly frightening, but truly wonderful.
But then… a major problem. (Yes, even that wonderful early church had its difficulties.)
What went wrong?
In essence, there was a split among these new followers of Jesus. On the one hand there were “Hebraic” Jews – that is, Jews who were deeply immersed in their ancestral culture and who spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew, the language of their forefathers.
On the other hand there were “Hellenistic” Jews – that is, Jews who were more at home in the dominant Greek culture of the wider Mediterranean world, speaking the Greek language and adopting Greek customs.
Where the difficulty flared up was over the very practical matter of food for the poor. The Greek Jews felt that their widows were not being treated on a par with the “Hebraic” Jews. So, feeling hard done by, they complained.
The apostles realised that something needed to be done. But what? Should they divert their energy and time from the business of preaching the gospel and teaching the new-born believers, and devote more of it to sorting out this problem?
Luke spells out their solution very clearly in the verse at the top. No! they said. Our business is to stay focussed on “the ministry of the word of God”, and let someone else “wait on tables”. Which is exactly what happened.
Were the apostles a bit self-important? Did they regard it as beneath their dignity to do a menial task such as “waiting on tables”?
No, not at all. They attached great importance to this new ministry – indeed, they insisted that the men appointed to do it should be of the very highest quality, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” no less than themselves. (Just look at Stephen, one of them, in the next chapter or two. Let no-one then say these first “deacons” were just (just!?) practical men fit only for menial tasks!)
But… the fact is that the apostles were the ones who had been with Jesus in his earthly life. They were the ones who had been witnesses of his resurrection. They were the ones who, having sat at Jesus’ feet, had the best understanding of what the good news was all about. So it was right that all their energy should be poured into the ministry of God’s word.
This story could, I think, have been written for us in the twenty-first century.
Our world is full of need, both “physical” and “spiritual”. Millions of people have hungry bodies and, following the example of Jesus, it is right that the church should help to meet that need.
But millions more have hungry souls. They know nothing of the living God, nothing of how Jesus died for their sins and rose again to give them eternal life. They know nothing of how forgiveness of sins is offered to all who put their trust in Jesus.
And who is to tell them these great things if not – the church? And who within the church is best equipped to do this but the successors of the apostles – the evangelists, the pastors, the teachers?
There have been times in history when the church has stressed so much the “spiritual” side of things that it has neglected some of the more “practical” aspects – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, you name it. And that isn’t good.
But is there a danger that we swing too much the other way too? Food-banks, luncheon clubs, debt-counselling services, youth work, medical missionaries… thank God for all these things.
But let’s not overlook the “ministry of the word”!
Let’s not be ashamed of the fact that we have a message to proclaim, a story to tell, good news to pass on of Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day coming back. We have words to speak to explain our actions.
Jesus said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Do we really believe that?
And Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Do we really believe that?
Demonstrate to people the practical love of Jesus. Of course. Of course! But tell the story too. How else will people understand?
Lord God, thank you for the power of your gospel to change lives. May I never be embarrassed or ashamed to make it known. Amen.