The Growing Church
A Growing Church
Rodney Gehman – February 4, 2024 – Acts 6:1-8
[ 001 ] If you’re a guest with us today, we’re going through the book of Acts verse by verse, chapter by chapter, with the goal of learning what Jesus continues to do and say in and through the very first Christian church. And so far, this whole story has been very exciting. If we were to start at chapter one and read straight through to the end of chapter 5, we would be able to say man, this thing is like a roller coaster that has reached the top of that first hill, and once the Holy Spirit came in power at Pentecost to 120 people and then it was like WHOOOOSH down that first hill [ 002 ], 3000 people come to faith in one day, around some turns the Lord adds to their number every single day people who are being saved, whipping through the tunnel and around some curves, now it’s over 5000 and by the time we get to chapter 5:14, we’ve stopped counting the new believers – it just says “multitudes of men and women'' are being added to the Lord. It’s just exhilarating! Hands up in the air, just hang on and enjoy the ride.
Isn’t this what you hope for in your church? You want to see more and more people coming every week. You want to see people being saved. Who wouldn’t want to have a church where KidCity keeps expanding, more men show up for the Bible study this year than last year, more women come to the retreat than last year, more baptisms than last year, more people attending week after week? Who wouldn’t want to see your friends and family and neighbors walking in freedom from worry and anxiety, freedom from addiction or despair? Who wouldn’t want to see people healed of debilitating diseases?
Of course we do. And it’s always fun reading about this early church as people come to faith every day. But as we go along reading about this growing church we also discover that the serpent is still in the garden. Among all the stories of growth and expansion, conversions and baptisms, we also see a clash of kingdoms where the church is met head on by the reality that the kingdom of heaven here on this earth is at war with the kingdom of darkness. In fact, next week’s sermon is called “The Clash of Kingdoms” and we’ll take a deeper look at this war.
And as a marker of that clash of kingdoms, the last thing we saw at the end of chapter 5 is that these 12 apostles were beaten by the religious leaders for preaching in the name of Jesus, and yet every single day, either in the temple or in various homes, the apostles continued boldly teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
I’ve been part of two churches in my life that grew rapidly like the church here in Acts – not in those numbers, where it grew by the thousands in a day, but I’ve seen it grow by dozens and even hundreds very quickly. And when something grows so quickly like this, it’s a bit of a mad scramble. No one really has an idea of what they are doing, because you hardly have time to dream or think ahead – you just have to take care of what’s pressing right in front of you. These leaders really had no idea what to expect there at Pentecost and in the months and years that followed, so they are trying to keep up with all the demands of this new church now.
With more people comes more responsibility, with more responsibility comes more needs, with more needs comes more opportunities and challenges and conflict. Now, right out of the gate, conflict in marriage or family or business or church is not necessarily a bad thing. If your marriage has a ton of conflict, you probably need some help. But if your marriage never has conflict, you probably need some help. Growth happens through conflict, so it’s not always sinful or selfish, it’s not always spiritual warfare or opposition – sometimes it’s just the result of two humans created uniquely being in the same room.
And here in the first part of chapter 6, even this new community of believers that is exploding with such excitement and growth, faces conflict.
[ 003-1 ] Acts 6: In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, [ 003-2 ] there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution.
First of all, let me remind you what that daily distribution was. [ 004-1 ] Back in Acts 4:34-35 as more and more people are coming to faith in Jesus here’s what we read: – There was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, [ 004-2 ] and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need.
So as the group started out with 3000 people, every widow was getting what they needed. Every person in poverty was getting what they needed for the day. But as the numbers grew, and Jews who used to live in other countries are moving back to Jerusalem to be part of this new Church, the apostles themselves are losing the ability to distribute fairly. They appear to be the ones at fault here. The people have been bringing their garage sale cash to the 12, and saying “You guys know who needs this and who doesn’t.”
Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews.
Hebraic Jews are those Jews that live in ancient Palestine, what is now Israel. These are people who grew up going to the Temple, and were raised under the law of Moses or Torah. And they, either at Pentecost or in the months that followed, came to faith in Jesus through the witness and teaching of the apostles. So that’s one group. The other is the Hellenistic Jews.
Don’t let those first 4 letters distract you as if to say these were hell-raising Jews, the really rebellious and wild ones. Hellenistic is another way to refer to people or places or things that are Greek. So these are also Jews who grew up with the law of Moses and worship of Yahweh, however they were people who were scattered out of Israel and lived in non-Jewish cities. As a result of living in and around Greek culture instead of Jewish culture, they would have most-likely have behaved like Greeks and thought like Greeks, carried some cultural customs of the Greeks and would have been considered compromised by the Hebrew Jews living in Palestine. The Hebraic Jews would have looked down their noses at Hellenistic Jews.
But these Hellenistic Jews, either at Pentecost or in the months following, would also have been converted by the gospel of Jesus and have joined the Church. Now, as Galatians points out, these two groups have been made one by the gospel of Jesus. They have been united into one spiritual family. But sometimes, those things that have been ingrained in us before we come to Jesus still hang around after we get saved.
One day the Greek speaking Jews bring a complaint to the Apostles that it appears that either by accident or intentionally, their widows weren’t getting as much food and money as the Hebrew widows were when the daily distribution was being handed out.
Several years ago when my wife Jodi and I were still doing photography full time, we got the opportunity to travel to Ghana Africa to shoot photos and video of a mission over there called Door of Hope. And the missionary family who was stationed there at the time lived on this compound kind of place, with a few houses and a huge wall around it. [ 005 ] I didn’t get a great picture of this, but every morning, right outside the gates of that compound, sometimes a dozen or more Ghanians would gather and wait for the missionary and the local pastor to come outside to meet them. You can kind of see them in the background there under the tree.
And there under the tree, people would one by one present their various needs. Food. Clothing. Education for their kids. Sometimes they had medical needs but couldn’t afford a doctor. I thought about putting a picture up here of someone who showed up with a fresh machete wound on his ankle that would have sent some of you running to the exits. All kinds of things. And the pastor and missionary would go one by one down the line having to make decisions about who gets what. And there were times where people walked away upset because there wasn’t enough money that day for everyone to get what they needed, or they didn’t feel like things were fairly distributed.
Some of you young people probably can relate to that, where you want to know that things are fair. You say things like, that’s not fair – she got the bigger piece, or that’s not fair she gets to do this with her friends and I never get to. The Hellenistic Jews were complaining that things weren’t fair – the widows who spoke Greek weren’t getting the same resources as the Hebrew widows.
I think as it pertains to order in the church, there are a couple things to learn right off the bat here. No leadership team or missionary or pastor anywhere is going to be perfect. This is very encouraging to me that even Spirit-filled, signs and wonders performing, 1000’s of people coming to Christ in one sermon, Apostles who were specifically hand-picked by Jesus still aren’t perfect. They still have their own failures and shortcomings to deal with, and don’t get everything right. I take great comfort in that.
Secondly, these leaders show us how to handle conflict. They didn’t get defensive and angry, and they weren’t dismissive. They could have said, how in the world do we make sure all the widows get taken care of when we have thousands of people now part of the church – people we’ve never met! We don’t even know who all the widows are! And now they are upset with us because they aren’t getting enough?!
They decided the right way to handle this isn’t to try to take more on their own shoulders, but to admit that they need to hand off this responsibility to others. [ 006 ]  The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, "It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables.
Now on the surface this makes it sound like there is a spectrum, doesn’t it? It makes it sound like over here on the important side of what happens at church is preaching the word of God, and way over here is waiting on tables. Where the Apostles would say, I would love to help with the widows, but that wouldn’t be right. I’m a preacher of the word – it wouldn’t be right for me to sweep the floor after the gathering, it wouldn’t be right for me to touch a trash bag. It wouldn’t be right for me to hold the door or hand out cash and bread to widows.
But I want you to see the importance that the Twelve give to waiting on tables, or helping widows get food and supplies. Look at the requirements for the job: [ 007 ]  Brothers and sisters, select from among you
seven men I don’t know if the number 7 is significant in this context, or that it’s men and not a mixed group, but I think there is significance in the fact that no one person is expected to have to carry all the weight. It’s good to have teams of people working together toward a common goal. No one goes it alone.
[ 008 ] of good reputation, The same kind of description is given in 1 Timothy for church leaders. The emphasis is not on their skill, but on their character. These men must be trustworthy, men of integrity and character. It’s important that they care about doing what’s right even if it’s unpopular.
[ 009 ] full of the Spirit - These men must show the fruits of the Spirit: that they are motivated by love, joy, they aim for peace, they must be patient and kind, not rude or bullies but gentle. They’ll be working with money so they must be faithful and self-controlled. Those are all markers that the Spirit is present in a person. A few of these guys will also perform wonders and signs, and preach the word with power. But they all have to be full of the Holy Spirit.
[ 010 ] and wisdom, They are more than just knowledgeable. They have discernment. They know how to read the situation and trust the Spirit to expose the lie, like he did for Peter with Ananias and Sapphira. This isn’t simply a human wisdom – this is a wisdom that comes by being full of the Spirit.
[ 011 ] whom we can appoint to this duty.
I love this. They aren’t just looking for warm bodies. They take very seriously the position they are looking to fill, making sure this task is done by Spirit-filled, wise, trustworthy men so that they as Apostles (verse 4) do not get distracted from prayer and ministering the word.
[ 012-1 ]  This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (you heard Nate preach about him a few weeks ago), and Philip (We’ll learn more about him next week), and then the other guys we don’t know anything about…[ 012-2 ] , Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert from Antioch.
[ 013-1]  They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them… which is a way of saying, they gave them the authority to do the job, and they all got back to work with each group – the 12 and the 7 – able to give their full attention to their own roles in the church. And what do you suppose happened once there was good order in the church?
Three things here in verse 
[ 014 ]So the word of God spread, The apostles are able to focus on prayer and ministry of the word, and it bore fruit. This is a phrase that is going to be used again and again in the book of Acts – The word of God spread. The way the apostle Paul talks about it in Colossians is to call it “the word of truth”, a way to talk about the gospel. Meaning, more and more people became aware that Jesus is the Messiah that was promised in the scriptures, and that salvation is found in no one else but him. God was sending out the word through the apostles’ preaching, like a farmer scattering seed that will grow into fruit or a harvest.
[ 015 ] the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, Some translations clarify this even further to say the disciples “were being multiplied” which implies that God who is the one who keeps producing saving faith in people – God is the one who is calling people to himself. God is the one causing the growth as more and more people believe the gospel they are hearing, and surprise, surprise…
[ 016 ] and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. To say that they became obedient sort of implies that to this point they were disobedient to the faith, doesn’t it?
[ 017 ] In Romans 1:5, here’s what Paul says: Through [Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among the Gentiles. In other words, in Paul’s mind, another way to talk about a person being saved by grace, or the way we talk about it in a general sense – the way to talk about a person becoming a Christian – is that they became obedient. The mission of the church, the mission of the Apostles, the mission of all believers is to bring about, to work toward, to aim for, the obedience of faith.
There are a lot of people in the United States who would call themselves Christians or say they have faith. Every single one of those priests would have claimed to have faith in Yahweh and obedience to the Law of Moses, but they had all rejected Christ. And that, in Paul’s mind, was being disobedient to what is true faith.
[ 018 ] The author of the book of Hebrews tells us in chapter 3 that disobedience is the same thing as unbelief. To disobey the Lord is to have an inactive faith. To say you believe in God – like you believe he exists, but you don’t believe God, that he is who he says he is, that he will do what he said he’ll do, that he is Lord and Master and King and we are not his equals.
[ 019 ] There was anywhere from 2000-18000 of these priests, serving in small rural settings all over Palestine and surrounding regions, and so the fact that a large group of priests – possibly thousands of them who never believed the resurrection or the miraculous was possible – are now changing their minds about both as the apostles continue to preach in Jesus’ name, is a massive testimony to the power of the gospel.
So, it’s safe to say that when they became obedient to the faith, it means they repented of their sins and began to call on the name of Jesus. Believing that he was alive. Believing that he died for their sins as the perfect sacrificial lamb, that he came from the Father full of grace and truth, that he returned to the Father and sat down at his right hand where he is King of kings and Lord of lords, that he lives forever as the perfect and final high priest who intercedes for us in the presence of God, and that he will return one day to claim his bride and destroy his enemies.
They became obedient to the faith, meaning, they no longer held their traditions or religious hierarchies as something to be chased and held on to, but now lived for the glory of Christ in the power of the Spirit.
They now carry the message of the gospel themselves – to preach in Jesus’ name, to be filled with the Spirit in whatever capacity the Spirit decides, perhaps even to perform miracles, cast out demons, and heal the sick in the name of Jesus. They became obedient to the faith, meaning they are saved not by how they plot their family tree or because of their position in the community, but by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus.
And that’s exactly the kind of obedience of faith that we work toward in whatever our roles are here at River City. Whether that’s formally ministering the word from the front on Sundays, or teaching kidCity or holding doors, helping people find an empty seat, running sound, playing music, making coffee, or helping meet the needs of widows. That’s the same obedience of faith that we work toward as business owners, parents, construction workers, medical professionals, teachers, law enforcement, day laborers, house cleaners, or whatever it is that God has called you to. Being obedient to faith isn’t only something that happens only in church – it’s what we’ve been saved into.
Colossians 2 says that[ 020-1 ] When you were dead in trespasses… he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. Including the sins of unbelief. The sins of complaining. The sins of overlooking the needs of others. Sins of comparison. The sin of pride. The sins of hypocrisy and lying. He made you alive with him, and forgave us AAAALLLLL our trespasses. [ 020-2 ] 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. [ 020-3 ] 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authority and power and weapons of Satan and all his powers of darkness have been taken away and humiliated, and now freedom is on the table! Life is on the table. Purpose is on the table. Joy, peace, hope, forgiveness – it’s all available to us by the gift of grace that is in a crucified and risen savior.
It doesn't mean there won’t ever be conflict in the church, like we saw today. But it means we can work it out in love and patience with the help of the Holy Spirit.
It doesn’t mean there won’t ever be suffering again. One of these seven guys that got picked by the Church today is going to be murdered by stoning in the next chapter of Acts, as Nate preached a few weeks ago, and next week we’re going to see the opposition to this new Church go crazy. But even in persecution, we’re going to see the church continue to grow.
Why? Because Jesus showed us that suffering and death isn’t the end of the story. Death for him wasn’t the end, and for those who are obedient to faith, those who have anchored their lives in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, death isn’t the end for us either.
[ 021 ] So today as we move into participating in the Lord’s Supper together, this is what we are recalling and celebrating – We celebrate that Jesus is the one who is building his church. Jesus is the one who has done everything that is necessary to bring sinful people from death to life, and no matter how much Satan may try to disrupt, distract, or discourage – Jesus has triumphed over him at the cross and the church will not be defeated.
Richards, Lawrence O., The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), p. 772
Bock, Darrell L., Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 264