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The Spreading Flame - Series 1: Episode 10

Caring for the poor

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 6:1-7

One of the most important aspects of church community life is their care for the poor and specifically here, widows. Seven men were elected to oversee this more organised giving to the poor. A summary statement expresses the growth of the church and its spread despite setbacks.

One of the most important aspects of church community life is their care for the poor and specifically here, widows. Seven men were elected to oversee this more organised giving to the poor. A summary statement expresses the growth of the church and its spread despite setbacks.

Transcript

We’ve reached the final episode in Series 1. Some of you will have listened to the whole series and followed the story, or perhaps you’re just dropping in and listening to this episode. It’s a part of a bigger story and I’d encourage you to go back and listen to the others if you have the opportunity. This is the first phase of the story of the Early Church in the book of Acts, which comes to an end at the end of this episode. This phase is focused on the city of Jerusalem where the Church was born, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The preaching of the Apostles, led very ably by Peter, the leader of the apostolic team led to a tremendous number of people coming to faith in Christ, many miracles and the building of a tremendously strong church community, in the city of Jerusalem.

Introduction and Background

By the time we come to Acts 6: 1 - 7, which is today’s passage, then the church is many, many thousands. We cannot define that number from the text but we can estimate that number to be anything up to ten thousand or even more people. That’s a huge number of people in a city whose normal population might be perhaps, at this time in history, something like seventy thousand. We don’t know the number, but a vast number of people are coming to faith. Not all of them are resident in the city. There’s evidence in the text, from previous passages, that the Christian communities spilled over into nearby towns and villages in the region of southern Israel, in which Jerusalem is situated known as Judea.

As the church has gone along, there have been a series of setbacks and I’ve discussed these setbacks in previous episodes. There have been three up until this point and in today’s episode, another different kind of setback comes which needs to be overcome. The first setback was when the religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, led by the High Priest, imprisoned Peter and John in chapter 4, questioned them, threatened them and commanded them not to speak any more about Jesus. The second setback came in Acts 5, when two church members, Ananias and Sapphira, committed a sin by being very deceitful about their finances, and that caused real difficulty for a short time. Then the third setback appears, also in Acts 5, when all the Apostles are imprisoned and questioned by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. They are flogged, released and threatened again. But the church bounces back and continues to grow.

Poverty in the Church

However, in this passage, we actually have a different issue, which is a very important part of the situation in the Early Church. It’s concerning poverty and supporting church members who are in economic need. That’s a big issue in almost any church, anywhere in the world - particularly in poorer nations. People in poverty and need are everywhere. Many of them are in the Church, and one of the greatest challenges of the Church is how to help people who are in need. This is an interesting balance to the emphasis we’ve had up to this point in the book of Acts, particularly on the power of miracles to change people’s lives. We see here that people’s lives are also changed through economic provision, and God very much cares about economic provision. Before we begin to read this passage, let me talk a little about the economic situation of the church in Jerusalem. There were many thousands of people and, as I’ve said on one or two earlier occasions when we’ve looked at the way the church was structured in Jerusalem, we find that there are a number of reasons why some people were very poor. The first reason is that from the beginning, quite a number of church members were visitors to the city because they came for the feast of Pentecost. As they were converted to Christ and joined the church, they made a decision to stay in the city for weeks, months, or perhaps even permanently. We find that they are away from their families, away from their homes, away from their farmland or their smallholding, their jobs, or their market trading. These are people who need help and there are also local people who need help, local people who believe the Christian message.

The evidence of the New Testament suggests to us that the Christian message was particularly attractive to people who were poor. This has always been the case in the history of the Church. They would be joining the church but they wouldn’t have much income. Another unique situation here, often not thought about, is that many of the people who were healed had, through miraculous intervention through the Apostles, also had economic needs. Let me give an example from the earlier chapters. In Acts 3, we heard about the forty year old man at the Beautiful Gate in the Temple, who was lame and was suddenly healed from disability and able to walk for the first time. We often think what a wonderful story it is but there’s another side to it. How did he support himself after he’d been healed? All his life he earned his money from begging. He got himself into a very good position and presumably earned a reasonable income, from gifts and donations made at the Beautiful Gate, and in other places in the city. But that’s gone. He hasn’t developed any particular profession; he hasn’t got any land; he hasn’t got a job; he can’t be involved in market trading. What’s he going to do? What about people like that?

These needs are also focused particularly on one of the most vulnerable economic groups, which is the group we’re going to talk about in this passage: widows. We’re talking about a society where widows often ended up in significant poverty because their husband had been their economic provider and he had now died. How did the church respond to these economic needs? We had some hints earlier on. We saw some things that began to happen right at the very beginning. We see, for example, in Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32, the sharing of possessions. People began to share things that they had. We see in Acts 2: 45, hospitality - the sharing of homes. We can assume that some people stayed long-term in other people’s homes. We saw in another episode, in Acts 4: 34 - 35, the selling of possessions to provide finance to help distribute to those who were poor. We even see people like Barnabas, and then Ananias and Sapphira, selling property - really significant assets being sold - and the money being used to help those in need. Clearly, there’s an economic issue in the background of everything that’s going on here, despite all the miracles and all the amazing things that are happening. People need a place to live; they need enough money to provide food and basic needs for themselves and other family members that may be with them.

Widows in Need

The focus sometimes fell upon widows. This is the case here. Let’s read in Acts 6: 1, Luke’s description of what the issue was:

1 ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’

Acts 6:1, NIV

The most interesting starting point here is the fact that there’s a daily distribution of food. This is what modern people in the West call a Food Bank. Daily distribution of food was one of the first practices of the Early Church, and it took place in the very first church that ever existed; it took place almost from the beginning of its existence. People are sharing food.

A tension arises between two ethnic groups, two social groups within the church community. Almost all the church community at this stage were Jewish. But the Jewish people were divided culturally between what are called here the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews. The Hellenistic Jews were people whose first language was Greek - the common language of the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the eastern Mediterranean. Many of these Jews lived outside Israel where Greek was the first language spoken. Many of them were visiting Jerusalem, or had come to a feast like the feast of Pentecost, or were drawn to the church whilst they were visiting Jerusalem. They were culturally quite closely connected to the Greek culture of the eastern Mediterranean, the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The other group are the Hebraic Jews who mostly lived in the country of Israel and whose first language was not Greek but Aramaic -the common language of the people in Israel at the time; the language that Jesus would have spoken in common communication. There’s an ethnic difference, a social difference, a cultural difference and a language difference here between these two groups. As often happens with these tensions, there was a tendency for one group to consider itself culturally superior. The Hebraic Jews generally tended to consider themselves more fully Jewish. They lived mostly in the Jewish homeland. They spoke the language that most Jews adopted, which was very similar to the Hebrew language, their foundational national language. The widows who had a Greek background and were Greek speaking seemed to be being overlooked.

This daily distribution of food wasn’t totally organised. It was something that must have run in a spontaneous kind of way as people began to see the need. They looked around this vast church and were giving food to people rather like themselves, and so prioritising the Hebraic Jews, rather than the Hellenistic Jews. It’s interesting that in communities, we always tend to focus on people like ourselves, and then other people feel excluded, or marginalised, even accidentally. Iit doesn’t appear that this is malicious or systematic. It’s just people helping others like themselves, with a little bit of social prejudice. Something needed to be done because a division was rising.

The Apostles Intervened

We spoke about unity before, in earlier episodes, and how important it was. The unity of the church was being threatened over this economic issue, the daily distribution of food. The Apostles needed to intervene and do something about it. Acts 6: 2 - 4 tells us what the Apostles did:

2 ‘So the Twelve 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. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”’

Acts 6:2-4, NIV

The Apostles realised that delegation was essential. For any church to grow and develop, delegation is essential. The Apostles realised they themselves needed to prioritise constant preaching the Gospel and teaching the church. They needed to spend time in prayer personally and running the prayer meetings of the church, which we saw referred to in earlier episodes. They knew they couldn’t do all these jobs themselves. They invited the church to recommend to them men who were of considerable maturity, full of wisdom and of the Spirit; people who were not going to be prone to selfishness and distinguishing between ethnic groups and favouring one group against the other.

Seven Chosen Men

We see this process beginning to unfold. They’ve had a church meeting. There must have been some discussion amongst the church members and some way of recommending people. They chose men, because in that society, men carried a higher level of authority for these sorts of sensitive decisions. So, what happened? Acts 6:5 - 6:

5 ‘This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.’

Acts 6:5-6, NIV

The interesting thing about these seven is, their names are all Greek names, rather than Jewish or Hebrew. Both types of names were used by Jews. For example, the Apostle Paul uses Paul, the Roman and Greek type name, and Saul, the equivalent Jewish name. Here they’ve all got Greek names, which suggests that they are probably from the ethnic group of the Hellenistic Jews, which is an interesting point in itself. In verse 5 we see something even more interesting. One of these, Nicholas, is a convert to Judaism. He’s not even a Jew. He is a prophetic sign of something that’s going to happen in the Church; it’s not going to be long before the Church is truly multi-ethnic. If you remember back to the very first episode, you’ll remember that Jesus commanded the Apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, that’s the surrounding Jewish area, in Samaria, the next region further north, with a different ethnic group, and then to the ends of the earth. We know that many people are going to come into the Church who are not Jewish, and it won’t be long before the Jewish people are a minority in the Church. We begin to see this happening. Nicholas, who has joined the Jewish faith and comes from Antioch, is now coming into the Christian faith. That’s a wonderful story.

Just the names and the stories of these people are extremely interesting. Stephen is listed first and he has an amazing character reference: a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. We’ll hear more about Stephen because he becomes a significant preacher. We’ll also hear more about Philip because he becomes a very significant evangelist. For the moment, these seven men are tasked with practical work. They must organise the distribution of food. They must find out the people who are not receiving food and they must make sure that it reaches the widows, particularly the Hellenistic widows. This problem is solved by delegation and by teamwork, and by recognising when a division or a split is threatening the church, and doing something about it. We move from the time when just sharing goods spontaneously was sufficient to meet the need, to a time when some organisation is needed.

Summary Statement

We come now to our final verse, which is hugely significant. I’ve stated one or two times, in previous episodes, that Luke’s structure in the book of Acts is based on sections which each have a summary statement at the very end. This is the first summary statement. Acts 6: 7 summarises everything that’s happened up until that point, which we’ve described in the 10 episodes of Series 1.

7 ‘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, NIV

So, the growth is continuing. The statement about the priests is fascinating. It’s the priests who have been the opponents. They’ve been described as the opponents. They are part of the establishment right at the centre and some priests are on the Sanhedrin. The High Priest is ruling over the Sanhedrin. He is the instigator of opposition to the Apostles, and yet some of their own number are now coming to Christ. That religious opposition is fragmenting because of the impact of the Gospel. The first statement is wonderful: ‘So the word of God spread.’ Why did the word of God spread? Partly because of what had been done in the previous few verses. The word of God spread because the Apostles kept preaching, rather than getting diverted into other things. The whole point of what they said earlier on is, “We must give our attention to the ministry of the word and to prayer”. There’s a lesson for us here, isn’t there? Those who preach and those who evangelise, should prioritise those things in Church life. This summary tells us in a nutshell of the amazing things that happened in the first church, the first phase of the Early Church life, in and around the city of Jerusalem. The story will change very soon, because the Church is going to be scattered and people are going to go far and wide from Jerusalem, and all sorts of other churches are going to start in other communities, beginning with the Samaritans. More of that in Series 2.

Reflections

As we are going to conclude this series, we need some reflections and thoughts about what we have learnt from this episode. The first point is about poverty which is such a fundamental issue in human life; such an urgent issue in the world today; such a critical issue in many of the countries represented by the viewers of this episode; such a vital priority for the Church - to represent Jesus’ concern for people who don’t have enough to live on, don’t have shelter or don’t have food. How did the Church address this in the early days? In the book of Acts so far, we’ve seen two ways that the Church addressed this issue. One, through spontaneous sharing, generously, in the church community and the second method which we’ve seen starting in this episode, is an organised support programme within the church, to help those in the church community who are poor. That’s absolutely vital. In Acts 11 we’ll see another stage developing, where we find a richer church in a city called Antioch, outside Israel, taking a collection of money to transfer to poorer churches; we see richer churches helping poorer churches. The first stage is people spontaneously helping each other. The second stage is the organised programmes of the church. And the third stage is richer churches helping poorer churches, often that means churches in richer countries helping churches in poorer countries.

The work of the Church towards people in poverty goes beyond the church community. So, there’s a fourth element and that fourth element we see defined, very clearly, in Galatians 2:9 - 10. This is happening sometime later in the life of the Church but is a very interesting conclusion to this particular topic. On this occasion, Peter and the other Apostles are in Jerusalem still. Paul has become an Apostle; he’s been converted; he’s preaching to the non-Jewish people, the Gentiles, in many different countries. He comes to meet Peter and others, just to check out a few things concerning his message. Let us read these two verses with a surprising conclusion.

9 ‘“James, Cephas (or Peter) and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised (or Jews). 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”’

Galatians 2:9-10, NIV

This meeting took place in Jerusalem, some years later. Paul and Barnabas came to visit Peter and his colleagues and they talked about the doctrine, the Gospel they preached, and Peter said, “You’re preaching the same message as us. There’s no difference. We support what you’re doing. You’re just doing it in a different community.” Peter’s final word to Paul was, “Don’t forget to teach your churches, wherever you plant them, to always remember the poor in their communities.” Because that’s what the Church does. That’s part of the life of the Church. That was beginning to happen here in the Jerusalem church in the early days, not described in great detail here. People outside the church community would also be receiving help from the Christian family. Peter said to Paul, “It’s part of what churches are. We always think about people in poverty and try to help them.”

A second reflection is about local church leadership. We begin to see a pattern developing here. It’s only the beginning but the pattern is that there are two types of leaders in local churches. The Apostles represent the senior leaders, and the seven men represent assistant leaders, whose job is not the care of the whole church, but one area of church life. Later on, Paul defines these two categories much more specifically, when the church is developed, as elders, or overseers, or pastors, or shepherds - the ones who care for the whole church, and deacons - the ones who serve the elders by taking responsibility for one particular area, and being leaders in that area. If you look at Paul’s writings, particularly in Philippians 1: 1, you’ll see an example there of a local church. Paul greets the local church in Philippi and he says,

1 “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers(or elders or pastors)and deacons.”

Philippians 1:1, NIV

That pattern arises from what begins to happen here in Acts 6, as the supporting secondary leaders are put in place.

My final point, with which we conclude this episode, and conclude this series, is that here we have a very interesting example of the need to integrate people of different social and ethnic backgrounds in a local church. It’s very easy for churches to represent just one, or perhaps one or two ethnic groups, but it’s clear here that the Apostles wanted to integrate different people in single church communities. Paul set the vision for this in Galatians 3:26 - 29, with which I’ll conclude this talk:

26 “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus and have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Galatians 3:26-29, NIV

Paul basically states, whatever your social class and wealth, whatever your gender, whatever your ethnic background, God sees you all as having equal status - all children of God. Here, the Apostles realised that the Hellenistic widows were just as important as the widows from the Hebraic background. They were beginning the process of helping the church to honour all different groups within it. That process goes on throughout the New Testament and will be happening in your church and in my church.

Let’s learn some lessons from this amazing passage as we seek to build that wonderful culture where all have an equal status before God. Thanks for listening and thanks for being with us if you joined us throughout this series. I hope you’ll join us again for Series 2, where the story moves in a new and fascinating direction.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How does your community welcome people of different social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds?
  • Discipleship
    Discipleship
    1. Who are the poor in your society? How do you serve them?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What are the differences in the roles of Apostle, elder, deacon and disciple?
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