The Priority of Preaching
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, August 9, 1998
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
This passage of Scripture teaches us the priority of preaching. Proclaiming the word of God is the primary purpose of the church of Jesus Christ, and Satan will do anything to distract God's people from that purpose.
A few years ago I came into my office and saw some small dark pellets on the papers on the desk. With my brilliant mind I deduced that mice had been present in the office. In the same way, whenever we see certain droppings in the church we must deduce that Satan is at work. In this passage we notice there arose goggusmos, which means murmuring, complaining, and unhappiness among the disciples in the early church. Why do you think these droppings were there? Because Satan was at work. Satan is always opposing the church but he alternates his methods. Sometimes he brings opposition from without and sometimes from within. In this passage we see Satan working within the church by causing the people to murmur against each other.
Satan was trying to distract the apostles from their primary work of preaching the word of God by calling their attention to the need for social service within the church, specifically in the area of food distribution. But the apostles would not be distracted from their calling. Why? They were called by Jesus Christ himself to preach the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. Jesus told his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, not the things of the world. Why? Man's soul is infinitely more important than his body. What does it profit if a man gains the whole world yet loses his soul? The only way a sinner can be saved is through the proclamation of the gospel. Thus, when they heard the disciples murmuring, the apostles established a certain organization to deal with food distribution in an equitable way.
The Importance of Order
This passage of Scripture also teaches the need for a certain amount of organization in the church. There are some Christians who oppose any kind of organization. To them it is unspiritual to be organized. Such people have no pastors, no church membership, and they delight in doing only "as the Spirit leads." That is sheer nonsense and confusion.
Others believe in over-organization. They have a solution for every problem: just organize it. Their ideal is to organize the church like a major Fortune 500 corporation. In fact, when corporate people come into some churches, they are immediately given jobs to do in the church, whether they are spiritually fit or not. Such churches do not need the Holy Spirit at all. Problems in the church? Just organize.
There should be some organization in the church because God is a God of order. In 1 Corinthians 14: 33, 40 we read, "God is not a God of disorder but of peace," and "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way." We just have to look at the world God created and see divine organization. For example, a home is not a place of disorder. Children are to obey parents, a wife is to submit to the husband, and the husband is to obey God. Additionally, in the church itself God gave gifts of pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. So organization is not unnecessary or unspiritual. What is not spiritual is a dependence on organization rather than on the Holy Spirit.
Acts 6:1-7 speaks of the appointment of deacons to carry on the social services of the church. Up to that point the apostles were preaching the gospel and taking care of the poor. But when the people began to murmur and complain about the inequitable distribution of food to their widows, the apostles appointed seven men to carry on social service functions so that they could devote full time to prayer and the preaching of the word of God.
The Problem of Discrimination
The first thing we want to look at is the problem of discrimination. The growth of the church had produced certain administrative problems in the early church. Satan tried to use these problems to destroy the church from within by inciting the disciples to murmur and complain against each other.
The early church consisted only of Jews, but there were two groups: native Jews, known as Hebraic Jews, and foreign Jews, known as Hellenistic Jews, or Jews of the dispersion, the Diaspora. The latter spoke the Greek language and were steeped in Greek outlook and culture. More liberal than the Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews used the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Bible, rather than the Hebrew Bible, and worshiped in their own synagogues.
The Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora were present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, as we read in Acts 2:8-11, "Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia; Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome. . . Cretans and Arabs--we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Many of these foreign Jews heard the gospel, were converted, and joined the church.
What about the Hebraic, or native, Jews? Born in Palestine, they spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and used the Hebrew Bible. They were conservatives who zealously maintained the Hebrew culture. In fact, they would say, "Cursed be he who teaches his son the culture of the Greeks." They considered themselves to be superior to the Hellenistic Jews, as we see in Saul of Tarsus' list of reasons to boast: he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews." The Hebraic Jews were considered the first-class, the Hellenistic Jews the second-class, and, as they converted, Gentile Christians the third class.
There were also Hellenistic Jewish widows in the early church. Many foreign Jews, including widows, came to Jerusalem just to die in the Holy Land. Many of these widows, who were poor and incapable of working, became Christians and thus needed to be taken care of by the early Christian church.
We find many injunctions in the Old Testament telling the Jews they should take care of their widows and orphans, and in the New Testament we read about Jesus Christ raising up a young man who had died, whose mother was a widow. We also read Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees who, rather than helping widows, swallowed them up by taking away their means-- they "devoured widows' houses," Jesus said.
In his study of this passage Dr. William Barclay describes how the Jews took care of their widows: "In the synagogue there was a routine custom. Two collectors went round the market and the private houses every Friday morning and made a collection for the needy partly in money and partly in goods. Later in the day this was distributed. Those who were temporarily in need received enough to enable them to carry on; and those who were permanently unable to support themselves received enough for fourteen meals, that is, enough for two meals a day for the ensuing week. The fund from which this distribution was made was called Kuppah or Basket. In addition to this, a house-to-house collection was made daily for those in pressing need. This was called Tamhui or Tray" (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,1976], 51).
The Jewish people knew their responsibility of taking care of the fatherless and the widows, and the early church did as well. But as we read in this passage, a problem arose concerning unequal distribution to the Hellenistic widows.
The Destructiveness of Discrimination
Before this time there had been unity in the church. In Acts 2 we were told that no one claimed anything to be his own, but those who had property sold it, brought the money and placed it at the apostles' feet for social services, so that there were no poor people in the church.
Now Satan succeeded in bringing disunity and discord into the church. Discrimination raised its ugly head, and the poor widows of Hellenistic Jews were neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Hebraic Jews, who reasoned that second-class Jews deserved second-class treatment, were partly responsible for this. The apostles were also somehow responsible for this situation because they were in charge of the monies for social service.
Discrimination is an age-old problem, and, like modern churches, the primitive, ancient church was not a perfect church. People have always tried to classify people by groups, whether black and white, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Even today we find black churches for black people, Chinese churches for Chinese people, white churches for white people, and so on. There has always been a view that somehow people are unequal, and this view is present in the church as well.
Whenever such prejudices are present in the church it is an indication that Satan is at work. Satan hates any unity and accord and he will do what he can to replace it with murmuring and complaining. But discrimination has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ has destroyed all enmity between people by his death on the cross. He has brought Jew and Gentile together and reconciled them to God; therefore, it is absolutely detestable to display such evil discrimination in the church of Jesus Christ.
In Galatians 3:28-29 we read, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise." And in the fourth chapter of the book of Ephesians we are told to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and given seven reasons why there should be unity and love in the church. In Ephesians 4:4-6 we read, "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord; one faith; one baptism; one God the Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." As Christians, we all are sons of God, members of one family who will be together in one heaven.
Division and discrimination in the church of Jesus Christ is not of the Holy Spirit, and any time we observe it, we must recognize that Satan has come in. The truth is, there is no difference between believers. All have sinned, and only on the basis of grace are we saved; thus, God opposes all evil discrimination in the church.
Delegation Deals with Discrimination
The early church was experiencing problems of discrimination. The second point we want to examine is delegation.
The apostles did not want to hold on to this social service function. I am sure they understood the principle of delegation from the Old Testament, especially as it was illustrated in the eighteenth chapter of Exodus. There we find Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, coming to visit Moses and the people of Israel in the desert. When Jethro observed how hard Moses was working, judging the people from morning to evening, and how tired and worn out he had become, Jethro told Moses, "What you are doing is not good" (verse 17). "You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people's representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people--men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain--and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you." And verse 24, "Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said."
Social service is important. Serving tables, taking care of the widows and the fatherless, was a very important task in the early church, but that didn't mean the apostles were the ones to do it. They had to learn to delegate.
The Priority of Preaching the Gospel
When the apostles heard about the problems with the distribution to the widows, they acted immediately. The Spirit of God led them to divest themselves from that responsibility and delegate it to someone else. They could not assume all responsibilities. They were called to go to all nations and preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. Their first priority was the great commission of their Lord Jesus Christ as found in Matthew 28:19-20, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you," and in Acts 1:8, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Why did God call the apostles to preach the gospel? Because man's fundamental problem is not food or any other material need. Man's fundamental problem is sin. All men are under the wrath of God, and there is only one way of salvation--through faith in Jesus Christ who died for our sins. Man's primary need, in other words, is for the gospel.
The apostle Paul speaks very clearly about this in Romans 10:9, saying "that if you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord'"--meaning Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father--if you confess this Jesus as Lord "and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
The preaching of the gospel is essential because salvation comes only from the gospel. So Paul continues in Romans 10:14, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'"
Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, but they must first hear the gospel. So Paul was asking, how can anyone hear the gospel unless someone preaches? And how can someone preach unless he is sent? This applies to missionaries as well as to ministers. Many missionaries are not sent--they just went! They come up with their own ideas and just go. But the issue is, are you called by God and sent by the church? It is the church that sends you.
Thus, the apostles understood their primary ministry was preaching the gospel. They did not want to fall victim to Martha syndrome. Martha was cumbered about many things, distracted, doing this and that. What did Jesus tell her? "Only one thing is needful," referring to the gospel--the most needful thing in the world. We need preachers who will preach the gospel.
Paul instructed Timothy about the priority of preaching in 1 Timothy 4:15-16, "Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrines closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." And in 2 Timothy 2:2-4 he wrote, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs. He wants to please his commanding officer." There must be total concentration in this matter of preaching of the word. And in 2 Timothy 4:1-2, just before he was about to die, Paul encouraged Timothy to continue to preach the gospel, saying, "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction."
The apostles refused to be distracted from their primary occupation of preaching the gospel to wait on tables. So they called together an assembly of the disciples and said they must delegate this responsibility to others. They needed to find trustworthy, honorable, Spirit-filled, wise people whom they could commission to do this job.
Social Service or Ministry of the Word?
Many modern churches would not respond as the apostles did. Many churches have observed social needs and abandoned preaching of the gospel. They see it as utterly irrelevant. They are committed to the body, not the soul. What is relevant for them? Social action, political action, talking about food, clothing, medical aid.
Now, you may not realize this, but if you study the history of social services, whether schools or hospitals or other services, they were all founded by evangelical Christians who believed in the Bible. But that doesn't mean that social service is the primary mission of the church. In fact, it is secondary. What is primary is the salvation of one's soul. The most important thing we must know is that man has an immortal soul, and it is appointed to man once to die and then face judgment. We must realize the overwhelming reality that there is a hell and a heaven and a God to whom every man must give an account.
But in many modern churches man's soul is neglected. What would such churches tell us? "Forget about preaching. Engage in social services. Isn't the body alone important? If you still want to preach, preach about philosophy, politics, psychology, other religions, or economics. Preach about how to make more money or how to have better sex, but don't ever preach that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and was raised for our justification!"
In Amos 8:11 we read, "'The days are coming,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'when I will send a famine through the land--not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.'" We are living at such a time of famine of God's word. Right now there are very few people who will declare the gospel in all its purity and power.
Jesus did not come only to minister to physical needs. Remember how he fed the multitude a couple of times and they wanted to make him a king by force? Why did they react that way? Because their physical needs were taken care of. But Jesus refused to become their king in that sense. Why? Jesus knew his primary mission was not to feed sinners but to die for them that they may be made sons of God.
Delegation must be done responsibly. "Choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom," the apostles told the disciples. In other words, "Don't just go and hire people from the world to be deacons. Those who will serve at tables should be qualified men, believers, from among yourselves."
Jesus himself served the disciples by washing their feet and teaching them to do likewise, telling the disciples that if they wanted to be great in the kingdom of God they should learn to be servant of all. But they did not want to choose just anyone for these positions. They were not looking for those who were corporate executives. The requirements were not several advanced degrees. They did not tell the congregation, "Look for someone with wavy hair, someone who is tall and young, good-looking, always smiling, always well-dressed, possessing a sense of humor and a pretty nice voice." Those are the world's qualifications, not the church's. But how often do we find people who think the church operates as the world does?
God looks at the heart, not at the outward appearance. What, then, are God's qualifications for deacons? First, we must consider ethics. A deacon must be certified to have proper character. Let me assure you, character matters. We are living at a time when nations are being pulled down by their leaders into the sewer of immorality. Why? Because when people were voting for these leaders, they said, "Character does not matter." But this is not true in the church of Jesus Christ.
In Acts 10:22 we see a description of a man of good character. The servants of Cornelius were speaking to the apostle Peter, "'We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man who is respected by all the Jewish people.'" Cornelius was righteous, God-fearing and of good reputation. And in Acts 16:2 Timothy was described as a reputable person: "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him." Do people speak well of you? So the church had to find men of good character.
Second, a deacon must be a person who is spiritual, meaning he must be filled with the Holy Spirit, led by the Holy Spirit, and instructed by the Holy Spirit.
Third, a deacon must be a man who is practical, skillful to do the task--a man of wisdom.
In 1 Timothy 3:8 Paul gives more qualifications for deacons. Now, the word deacon comes from the Greek word diakoneo3, which means to serve. So Paul writes, "Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything." Character matters.
One other thing about delegation we must mention is that the pastor is not supposed to do everything. We are not supposed to maintain the clergy-laity distinction. Certainly a pastor is appointed by God to equip the saints but the ministry itself is done by all the saints. We read about this in Ephesians 4:7, "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it." It is the grace of ministry. To each one it is given. And in 1 Peter 4:9 we read, "Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."
This is the priesthood of all believers. We can do a lot of things when everyone is working on the basis of the gift each person has received.
Commissioning the Deacons
The apostle gave the qualifications and the congregation selected seven men out of the possibly twenty thousand believers in the church. Seven men stood out as being well-reputed, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, and full of faith. The apostles prayerfully ordained them and laid their hands upon them. Why did they lay hands upon them? They were commissioning them for a certain task and investing them with a certain authority.
In Numbers 27 we see Moses laying hands on Joshua. Beginning with verse 18 we read, "So the Lord said to Moses, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in." And in verses 22-23 we read, "Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him as the Lord instructed through Moses." In the same way, the apostles accepted these seven, prayed over them, laid hands upon them, commissioned them, and gave them the authority to do the job of social service.
The problem of the church was solved. The complainers were not thrown out or shunned or outvoted. The problem was not kicked into a committee so that it would never be solved. All those are the modern ways of doing things. But the Holy Spirit solves problems differently, instantly, and completely.
The Defeat of the Devil
We examined the problem of discrimination and the solution of delegation. The third thing we need to examine is the defeat of the devil.
The devil came to destroy the church. Remember the droppings--the murmurings, the discord, the division, the unhappiness? It had been all solved through delegation. In Acts 6:5 we read, "This proposal pleased the whole group." When the Holy Spirit solves a problem, it pleases the whole group. Once again homothumadon--being in one accord--is restored. Unity was restored, and the Hellenists and the Hebraists once again came together without any problem at all.
Who were the seven deacons? In verse 5 we read, "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." They all had Greek names, and it could be that they all were Hellenistic Jews. In fact, Nicolas was a Gentile who had converted to Judaism and was circumcised. After hearing the gospel, he became a Christian.
The apostles appointed these seven Hellenistic men as deacons and we can only imagine the appreciation the Hellenistic Jews felt towards the Hebraic Jews for doing that. No doubt they were relieved to have seven Hellenistic Jewish Christians who would be sympathetic to the needs of the widows of the Hellenists. Thus, total agreement was brought to the church.
What was the result? Satan was defeated in his attempt to distract the church from its mission, and the apostles were able to give themselves totally to the preaching of the gospel and to prayer. In verse 7 we read, "So the word of God spread." I hope that we will all keep on preaching the gospel, in season and out of season, when it is convenient and when it is not convenient. Why? The more we preach, the more people will come to know Jesus Christ.
I know a woman who, when she became a Christian, went back to her work place and asked a Christian co-worker, "Why didn't you share this wonderful gospel with me?" God had saved her, even though this Christian co-worker had never shared the gospel with her. But we must be faithful to preach the gospel wherever we are.
We must be filled with the Spirit and continue to preach the gospel. And so, notice, it says, "The word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large body of priests became obedient to the faith." The devil was defeated. God wins.
The apostles were now free to spend time in prayer and preaching of the word. This is essential. I recently heard of a survey that said that the average preacher prays three minutes a day. That's pretty sad, isn't it? You see, prayer is very important because through prayer there comes power, confidence, revelation, deliverance, guidance, and encouragement. Prayer is like watering a seed. You water the soil to soften it, you plant the seed, you water again, and all of a sudden God gives the increase. I am sure these apostles prayed three times a day--at 9 a.m., at 3 p.m., and at 6 p.m.--and if you read Acts 16 you find Paul and Silas praying and singing in the middle of the night. The apostles gave themselves to prayer and preaching of the word, and the devil was defeated once again.
How can we apply this to our own lives? First, consider your home life. Parents, are you doing everything for your children, or have you learned to delegate? The other day I asked a child to wash his hands, but instead of doing it, he put his hands together and waited, expecting me to help him. I immediately taught that child how to wash his own hands by himself.
Why don't we learn to delegate? Let the children do what they are capable of so that their fathers and mothers can pray and look into the Bible. Parents should not be running around all the time, doing everything for everybody. They should have the priority of seeking God.
It should be the same in the church. In this church we delegate responsibilities to many people, and we see people working busily all the time, being useful to the kingdom of God.
Above all, we must understand, preaching is fundamental. We all must keep preaching and sharing the gospel, telling them that Christ died for their sins. Why? Because there is no other way a sinner can be saved. There are many religions, many ideas, many philosophies, and many psychologies, but there is only one way a person can be saved. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, but how can they call unless they believe? How can they believe unless they hear? How can they hear unless the word is proclaimed as it comes out of your heart and mouth into their ears, into their hearts? As we are faithful to proclaim the gospel, God through the Holy Spirit will work in people's hearts and bring them to himself.
Why don't we share the gospel with others? Because we don't pray. And why do you think we don't pray? We feel no real need. Have you ever read 2 Samuel 11? There we find David. experiencing great peace and prosperity. He had reached a point in life where he had lots of money and no enemies. Was David praying? No, he was sinning. Isn't that our problem? When we have everything, we would rather sin than pray. But read chapter 12 and the following chapters. David experienced great pain as a result of his sin.
When we don't engage in vital, consistent prayer, we are ashamed of Christ and afraid of the world. We start to worry about what "respectable people" would say if we tell them about a Jesus Christ who died on the cross. Well, they may tell us the gospel is irrelevant to them, but we must continue to speak because the gospel alone is God's way of salvation. The gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation.
Let us, therefore, commit ourselves to delegation, to prayer, and to preaching of the word of God! May we seek God's face earnestly and diligently so that we may be built up and have power, confidence, guidance, enlightenment and revelation. Then, without fear, we will be able to give people food for their souls by declaring the only way of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
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