Fran Sandin divides her time between working part time as a nurse in her husband's urology practice and serving as the church organist. One afternoon, Fran was scheduled to play for an afternoon wedding. She grabbed her music and what she thought was her music folder as she left her husbandís office. When she arrived at the wedding, she played her piece, and afterwards began to head back to her husbandís office. Only then did Fran realize that what she had grabbed was not her music folder. It was a folder full of information on urological health. And on the front of the folder were bright, full color illustrations of kidneys, a bladder, ureter, and urethra. And this folder had been standing open on a clear, acrylic music stand in full view of the congregation throughout the wedding ceremony.1
Have you ever noticed that your life is always on display for someone? Well, the same goes for the church. All of our actions corporately and individually are on display for someone to see in one way or another. The early church as recorded in the book of Acts was on display as well, which is a very good thing for us.
Today, we are beginning a 10-part sermon series from the book of Acts, starting with Acts six and ending with chapter twelve. This first sermon, Handling the Flame, is part of this larger series that we've called, Fanning the Flame. So the question we ask is: How do we encourage and make larger the flame of truth and love that the Holy Spirit brings to us? For this series weíve chosen a sort of electric mascot to visualize this flame of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (There is a pedestal at the side of the pulpit with an electronic flame on it.) So, maybe we can visualize how we enlarge and make that flame grow bigger and bigger as we go through these chapters in Acts. The book of Acts does tell the answer.
I invite you to open your Bibles to Acts 6:1. Acts 6:1, In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Immediately in this story weíre introduced to the fact that the churchís growth was obviously blessed by God, and that there was a problem. You see, new people were coming in, including Jews who were not native to Palestine, but came from somewhere else and spoke a different language than the natives. The church was growing so fast that there were bound to be problems.
But now, who were the Grecians, as it is translated in some Bibles? Well, the phrase, "The Grecians," does not refer to Greeks, or Gentiles, but foreign Jews, who were born and brought up outside of Palestine, and spoke the dominant language of the Roman Empire at that time which was Greek. This particular word in the original was reserved for Jews who were of this class, called Hellenistic Jews. They were found in almost every city where Paul preached.2 These were Jews of the diaspora or the Jews who had lived outside of Palestine, and they didnít know Aramaic as other Jews did who had grown up in Palestine. And they grew up with the Greek Old Testament, also known as, the Septuagint.
And, of course, the Hebrews were Jews of Palestine. It is quite possible that they held themselves superior to the foreign Jews, and something of this spirit might have been in the early church. A conclusion that one could make to this particular problem in chapter six is that the Greek-speaking Jews were not considered as important. Most likely, though, it was just a simple oversight. And thus the widows among them were not as well looked after.
But, of course the background to all of this was in Acts 4 where it tells us that there was a practice of distributing aid or help to anyone who needed it, and that would especially include poor and dependent widows. So, this was a beautiful picture. But as the church grows larger, this problem developed. Either there was, possibly less respect for the Greek-speaking Jews on the part of the native Palestinian Jews, or there was just an unintentional overlooking or neglect of the Greek-speaking, Jewish widows.
Anyway, as the church increased in number, this problem became apparent in the church and it would be well to remember what Paul said about the attitude they were to have for each other at that time. You may remember the words of Galatians 3:28-29. The apostle Paul said that in the body of Christ There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if you are Christís, then you are Abrahamís seed, and heirs according to the promise.
And so, a question to consider at this point would be: Do we feel that way about other classes of people, those who are different from us, either ethnically or economically, perhaps? Do we consider others as inferior to us? Of course, some of that is natural. We all grow up with the concept that "I" or "My behavior" or "My family" or "My people" or "My nationality" is better or somehow more right than others.
We naturally compare ourselves to each other, donít we? I grew up in California, where people know how to speak correctly and donít have an accent. Is that right? Itís everybody else that does. And thereís a certain, either Western or Northern tendency, I donít know which, a tendency to judge others by the way we talk. So, someone might look more intelligent to us if they donít say anything. But when the begin to tawk with deep suthern drawel, well, that somehow just destination is not quite the same anymore. But before you run me out of the church, Iím not from around these parts. You might be assured to know thatís not really how I feel most of the time. Actually Iíve learned that it doesnít matter how one talks, as long as you can understand a person. Thatís okay. What really matters is where oneís mind is. Thatís it. And so Iíve learned to enjoy people of all backgrounds.
But that prejudice that I've referred to works around the other way, too. When I was beginning my ministry as an associate at the Macon church in Georgia, one of the matriarchs of the church genuinely wondered if I was a Yankee. I tried to assure her that I wasn't. I told her that I was born and raised in California, that I was a Westerner, a different breed, you know. She wasn't quite so sure if I qualified for some other status besides a Yankee. In her estimation, one was either a Southerner or a Yankee.
But seriously, the New Testament gives us an entirely different perspective from what I just described. We are all one in Christ as far as God is concerned. There are no divisions. There should be none. There are no separate classes. No one is superior. Some are given some gifts. And others are given other gifts. We all have a unique and valuable place in the family of God. And so, this attitude was practiced in the early church. At least, that was definitely the ideal. However, in the original church, the apostolic church, mind you, either because of possible prejudice or most likely unintentional neglect, not all was perfect.
Does that surprise you? Well, the church is a human institution after all, even though back then it was the Apostolic church. Although the church is a divinely-inspired one, the church is also a body of imperfect people. Well, even the original disciples made mistakes. The book of Acts ans Revelation records the mistakes of Peter. And the church is just like the Bible in that respect. It contains divinely inspired ideas, but the shell, the language, is at best, very adequate. So it shouldnít surprise us that even in the original church there were imperfections.
Let's continue our study in Acts 6:2-6. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ďIt is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.
"Therefore, Brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Porchorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
And so, on display before the world, this church group worked out their problem together with some very important implications for us today. You see, in Godís kingdom, God works to renew us from the inside out. And He wants us to learn and grow by our mistakes. In that process of learning, He desires us to be gently persuaded by His truth and His love, and to freely and voluntarily choose the right. Oh, not necessarily because He commands us to, although He does, but because God asks us only what is right and because it makes sense. So, I believe the bottom line is truth, and that means gentle persuasion and freedom and loving attitudes should be the foundation of every church action.
In reading this passage, did you get the feeling that there was a sense of forcing of the issue or of arbitrary, imposing, papal-like authority? Did you sense that here? No, it was just the opposite. The apostles did three things that made sense. What did they do? First of all, they stuck to their original mission. Secondly, they delegated people to oversee the issue at hand. And finally, they recommended something that made sense to the church. What made sense was that the apostles could continue preaching and teaching, and the need still be taken care of. And also, that the delegated duties would be performed by people of good, decent and honest reputation, and they would be full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom.
And what was the result of meeting problems with good, wise decisions? Did you notice how it says in verse seven that the church continued to grow successfully? Look at Acts 6:7. and the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. That is amazing!
You see, all those outside the church must have been watching to see how well they handled their problems and how they related to each other. And it impressed them. You remember the words of Gamaliel in the previous chapter about not interfering with this group Christian believers in the Messiah, Jesus that is. If you are fighting against God it would be of no use. And so, I believe everyone was watching to see what would happen. In other words, the church was a spectacle, or a theater, to use Paulís word, a theater for men and angels to watch. 1 Corinthians 4:9. For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have ben made a spectacle for the world, both to angels and to men.
That Greek word for what is translated "spectacle" is actually the word, "theatron", from which we get our English word for theater. It means a place for a public show, and by implication, a show itself, something on display. Well, the apostles were chosen by Christ so that he could use them to share His glory with the whole world.. And by extension, that goes for God's church. And that would mean that we are to reflect God's glory: His character. So, the church is a theater on display and what should be on display is the glory of God.
So what's the bottom line? The bottom line is that the original mission of the church is to display the glory of God. That's it! Thatís what weíre here for. That is why the disciples did not want to forsake prayer and the ministry of the Word. And yet they were practical enough to recognize that there were needs to be taken care of. They knew that ultimately though, the answer was not in programs or imposing arbitrary decisions. The answer was in empowering people. And more specifically, it was in empowering mature, wise, spiritually-minded, sensible and practical leaders.
I believe that this all boils down to a few important questions:
Ultimately, I believe that the only way we can handle appropriately the flame of truth and love that the Holy Spirit has passed down to us, is to make sure that all of us are individually in tune with God. When we do that, we will be empowered by God to reflect His glory and we will put on display the kinds of things that bring honor to our wonderful and gracious and generous God. So remember that we have an influence, either for bad or for good.
The story is told of a man in Massachusetts many years ago who found his neighborís horse in the middle of his field. He was so angry about it that he took the horse to the pound. Meeting the owner soon after this, he told him what he had done and added, "If I catch him there again, I will do the same thing." The neighbor replied, "Well, the other night I looked out of my window and saw your cattle in my field. I took your cattle and drove them over to your house, and put them in the barn, and fixed the gate. If I catch them there again, I will do the same thing." The man was reportedly so struck with his neighbor's gentle reply that he at once took the horse out of the pound and paid the charges himself.
And something else we must remember is that we are always being watched. In his book God's Outrageous Claims, Pastor Lee Strobel recalls that during his years as an atheist, there were four types of Christians who really turned him off. These people's attitudes repelled him and made Christianity look unappealing to him.
1. Becky Freeman, Susan Duke, Rebecca Barlow Jordan, Gracies Malone, Fran Caffey Sendin, Eggstra Courage for the Chicken-Hearted Tulsa, OK Honor Books, 1999, p.209.
2. See Acts 13:14-16.
3. Godís Outrageous Clamis, Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan Publishing House, 1997, pp.61-68.
Hymn of Praise: #36, O Thou in Whose Presence Scripture: Acts 6:1-7 Hymn of Response: #269, Come, Holy Spirit
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last updated July 11, 2005 by Bob Beckett and Eric Koester.