Today we’re starting a new series. We’re still in the book of Acts, but with chapter 6, the book of Acts moves into a new phase of the telling the story of the expansion of the early church. I’m calling this series, Antioch: A Church for All, because that’s the story Luke tells in these six or so chapters. This is the heart of the book in which we see the church, at the beginning of these chapters, in Jerusalem, an entirely Jewish entity, a movement within Judaism, but by the end of these chapters, we end in a city called Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire, and now the church is multi-ethnic, Jews and Gentiles worshipping together, and so we read in Acts 11:26 - “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” You couldn’t call them Jews anymore, because they were something else, something new.
So this is the second major section of the book of Acts. Over the past few months, we’ve been hanging out in the Jerusalem church. And we’ve seen it was the Holy Spirit’s intent through the writer Luke to present to us the Jerusalem church as a church for all ages. That is, the Jerusalem is a foundational model for the church through the ages. Not everything that characterized the Jerusalem church is to be reproduced in every age, but certain things about the Jerusalem church are highlighted for us. The centrality of the Apostle’s teaching, and how the church formed itself around the teaching of the Apostle’s. We still do that, because we still have the apostle’s teachings in the letters they wrote to the churches. Fervent prayer is highlighted as well as bold proclamation. We’ve seen the Jerusalem church characterized by selfless sharing of resources among the brothers and sisters in the body - true community of practical love, as well as the integrity and personal holiness, that stems from living as forgiven men and women, while retaining the proper fear of the Lord. So the picture of these chapters dedicated to the Jerusalem church was to have us focus on the character of the church.
The chapters leading up to the Antioch Church, however, focus on the composition of the church. That the church is a church for all people. During these chapters we’re going to be introduced to various groups of people and we’re going to see how God guides the church and tears down all the walls of hostility and division between the various groups. I’ll explain the five groups as we work through these chapters int he coming months. I’m really excited to work through these chapter with all of you, because its been you guys who have helped me to see just how much of an emphasis this is in the book of Acts. I’ve been teaching the book of Acts here at OCBC for 9 years, and when I first taught some of these chapters, I didn’t focus so much on the ethnic expansion, but the geographical expansion. However, being in an ethnic church for nine years has opened my eyes a bit and now I see that Luke is detailing the geographical expansion only the serve his greater point which is the ethnic expansion. The things that we see happen in these chapters in Acts have been part of our story as a church over the past 9 years, as we have been forming our identity as a community church for all people, even as we stand on our heritage as a Chinese church.
Here in Acts 6, we see the first real internal tension in the Jerusalem church. And we’ll see that the tension arises, before the “bad” Gentile’s come in. Before the “good” Gentiles come in. Before the Samaritans come in. It’s a tension that arises between the Hebrew Jews and the Hellenistic Jews.
Acts 6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
The Struggle is Real Again most Western commentators gloss over the cultural struggles in this text, instead focusing on issues such a church polity (deacons!), or thinking the problem was an administration problem. But here we our first indication of the cultural expansion of the church and the tension it introduced into the church. You have here an introduction of two camps in the church - the Hebrews and the Hellenists. Now note, this is not an ethnic struggle, both the Hebrews and the Hellenists were Jewish. Yet there was a distinction between the two groups in regards to how assimilated they were in relation to the dominant Roman culture around them. The Hebrews were Jews who were less assimilated. They spoke Hebrews in their homes had a greater connection to the homeland in Palestine. They were more suspicious of Roman society around them. They gave their kids Jewish names, and probably sent them to Chinese school on Saturday - I mean synagogue school, sorry. The Hellenists were much more assimilated into Roman society. They spoke the Greek of their neighbours around them, gave their kids Roman names, and interacted in Roman society to greater levels. And while, as you would expect, the church in Jerusalem had been primarily made up of Hebrews, more and more Hellenists were joining the movement. Now, we don’t know how identifiable these two groups were in the church - we don’t know if they had separate services for different languages our churches does, but we do know that they were distinct enough that tensions at times did arise between the groups, and here in Acts six we see the heart of the issue is that one group is feeling neglected, not only feeling - they were being neglected - as if they were not fully part of the priories of the church.
This is something that I think nearly all of us here can identify with. This tension of feeling neglected as a group in the church. I gave a talk last fall at ANACEFC. We spoke about how this is a reality in our Chinese churches. Now, I do not want to diminish the reality that our Chinese congregations may have their own experience with this, but I would argue that this is a universal struggle amongst many of our English Congregations - that they feel as if they are secondary or inferior partners in the work of the ministry. Many English Congregations began as children’s or youth ministries, and even after years or decades, even after they grow up and have kids of their own, they still struggle for recognition as “real” congregations and not just youth ministries. In OCBC’s case, our English congregation was started in the 1980 to raise up the next generation. For nearly two decades they met in a smaller room while the Chinese congregation worshiped in the Sanctuary. It is common for many English congregation that their English pastor, when they have one, is considered an associate or youth pastor under the authority and supervision of the senior pastor, who had his hands full with the Chinese congregation. I remember reading on the internet one English pastor’s blog about the mailbox issue in their church.
I have benefitted greatly that years before I came to OCBC, most of the struggle for the English Congregations legitimacy had already been worked out. The church had gone to a different Sunday service structure in which both congregations used the main sanctuary and thus felt like legitimate congregations. the English ministry team had been developed and were given a lot of autonomy by the board to make decisions for the English ministry. Our vision statement, written 2 years before I arrived, spoke of the English and Chinese congregations as being “full and equal partners in the mission of the church”. This is an ongoing priority for us as a church to see that neither congregation is neglected. We see to it that many of our committees and especially church board contain representation from both congregations. Our Chinese and English pastors are given the same title and are both seen as pastors of their respective congregations. In fact, when we moved into one church building, there was one large pastors office and two smaller equal offices. At the time i was the only pastor in the church. People joked with me that I would get such a large office. I said, no way! I’ll take one of the smaller offices and give the big office to our church secretary. Why? So that when we get a Chinese pastor, we will be equal.
The struggle of neglect and legitimacy is a real struggle in our ethnic churches and next generation ministries. And it goes both ways. Maybe your English congregation is growing, and immigration is slowing down in your area. Watch for signs of tension and feelings of neglect in each of your congregations, and use the wisdom given to us by the Holy Spirit in Acts six to work out conclusions that honour and grant legitimacy to all groups.
The Church Must Remain Focused The tension had to be addressed because it was a severe threat to the unity and ongoing mission of the church. However, it would not do for the apostles to neglect the central task of ministering the Word of God and of prayer. Now, many interpreters take this text and make it about church politics, that we should have some leaders in the church focused on preaching and prayer - spiritual matters, and others, usually called deacons, that focus on the material matters of the church. While that may be a secondary implication, it is not the main point. The main point is that the church has two ministries to fulfill - the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the table (in the greek the same word is used in verse 1,2, and 4). And the ultimate point here is that the church’s first priority is the ministry of the Word of God. The preaching of the word is central above all else, because the community forms around the message of the gospel. It is the gospel that changes hearts, it is the gospel that transforms lives, it is the gospel that binds us together as brothers and sisters, it is the gospel that inspires us to love.
Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
So the word of the gospel must be kept central and must not be neglected. However, the practical ministry of meeting needs in the church was important as well, and the division between the different groups in the church were threatening that mission, and so others leaders were chosen and appointed to serve in this way.
Emerging Leaders Carry the Movement On
Look what the apostles do in response to the tension among the two groups. They go to the church, acknowledge to issue and work out a solution. Interestingly, look at what the Holy Spirit leads the church to do. Look at the names of those who are selected and appointed to see to it that this issue is solved. They all have Greek names. One of them in fact was even a Gentile proselyte to Judaism before joining the church. In resolving this tension, the Holy Spirit led the church to acknowledge the next generation leadership, and in doing so, legitimized the Hellenistic group in the church.
That’s why I don’t see this text as referring to deacons. I call this “next generation” leadership, because this is where the focus shifts in the book of Acts, from the “first generation” ministry of the apostles, to the “next generation” ministry of the Hellenistic evangelists, such as Stephen and Philip.
And look what happens: Acts 6:7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
What does this mean for us? OCBC we’re going to have tensions. Let’s pray that they don’t spill over to this level. Keep the word central. Pray for our board and our ministry teams and our pastors that we can work together in unity and keep the priority of the ministry of the Word even while meeting the ongoing needs of our members and our community.
Pray for our leadership development in the English Congregation. We have men and women in this room who are of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, we hope to continue to raise up our leadership to greater maturity, so that we can continue to keep the ministry of the Word central and meeting the ongoing needs of our members and our community.