In the first five chapters of Acts, we saw the establishment of the apostolic church and the beginnings of opposition to it because of its preaching of the risen Christ. Even in spite of opposition and persecution, the early church had grown exponentially, now numbering in the thousands — estimated to be around 20,000 — “now in these days when the disciples were increasing number” (Acts 6:1). In fact, this time was the greatest period of church growth in history. That growth came with an urgent need for the apostles to establish and clearly articulate both practical and spiritual priorities and to determine a biblical structure of organization that could meet the needs of even the very least and last of its church members.
In this week’s text, we start to see the missionary work of the church being to expand. The Jerusalem church was a cultural, ethnic and linguistic tapestry, and that diversity came with problems (Acts 6:1). There were two predominant languages used in the synagogues and in home gathering churches by the Jewish Christians — Hebrew and Aramaic. There was one group, however, who, not being fluent in Hebrew or Aramaic, spoke Greek. Those people were known as the Hellenistic Jews as they had lived in Greek speaking lands during the Diaspora (scattering of the Jews to countries outside of Palestine), and who, as a result, were culturally closer to the Greeks (“also included in this group were Gentiles who had become Jews by conversion”).
Criticism over the way Hellenistic widows were being cared for arose from the Greek speaking Christians. The reasons for this oversight could be speculated upon, but at its root was that, because of the rapid church growth, the church’s distribution network was being taxed beyond the capacity of the apostle to directly oversee it. This issue could have had great potential for dissension and disruption, but the apostles moved quickly to address the problem.
It was a custom in Judaism to appoint a council of seven men to fulfill a task, and that was what was done in this instance. The apostles charged the body of believers to choose seven men to oversee their needs; a decision that apparently pleased both the Hebraic and Hellenistic converts (Acts 6:5).
Through prayer, spiritual discernment, and the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6) seven men of “good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” were chosen for the task (Acts 6:3). These high qualifications show that neither the deacon ministry nor its recipients (the Greek speaking widows) were of insignificant value. These men became assistants to the apostles, helping with the day to day work of the church and allowing the apostles to focus on preaching the Word. They apprenticed under the authority of the apostles, learning and growing, and eventually, they began to preach and teach themselves, setting a biblical precedent of growing from deacons to elders. It was here that the office of deacon we see in I Timothy 3:8-13 had its beginnings. Being accountable first and foremost to God, deacons and elders, along with the spiritual gifts and talents they bring to their office, are God’s design to create, if you will, an organizational chart for a fully functioning Body of Christ. They are meant to support the pastors by being deeply involved in teaching, service, administration and all aspects of being church leaders.
The office of deacon in the church specifically serves a model of selfless service. The men serving in this office should be an example for us of love on display in the church, demonstrating to us how we sacrificially pour ourselves out for each other and how we stand united in Christ. This love and service should be our church’s most powerful apologetic.