Living Mercy

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One of the things that has been unfortunate in some Reformed circles has been the tendency to reduce the faith to the intellectual. We feel satisfied if we've got our doctrines all neatly sown up. Now, don't get me wrong. I believe in academically sound theology, and we saw last week that the ministry of the Word is the highest priority within the church. But if our theology is correct, it will always result in action. Just as faith without works is dead, so too, theology without works is dead. And since we are going to be diving into the subject of deacons and mercy ministries, I want to recommend George Grant's books on mercy ministries as being the best on the subject available. There is a lot of misinformation out there, even some socialistic ideas, but his are solid; rock solid.

And he has pointed out that the Reformed faith is one of the richest depositories of ideas and practice on mercy ministries. We don't have to look to present authors. The last 2000 years is strewn with solid teaching on the subject. Augustine taught on this in the early 400's AD. Most Reformed Christians know that he changed the face of the church through his brilliant theological treatises. We think of ourselves as Augustinian. But few people know that he also transformed Northern Africa with the models of charity that he established in thirteen cities. It was very important to him. John Wycliff is best known for his reforming activities on theology and his translation of the bible. But he also established networks of care for the poor that have lasted to the present day in Europe. And we are not talking about socialistic care for the poor. We are talking about Biblical care that got people on their feet as productive citizens. Jan Hus was burned at the stake for his Reformed theology, but not many people know that he mobilized an army of workers for emergency relief when Europe was being hit with disaster after disaster. He felt that it was imperative that the church be there to minister when others were running away. George Whitefield is best known for his preaching, but he also had a passion for relief of the poor and started orphanages and a hospital. And the list can go on and on. And the first half of this chapter is a challenge to our own church to have a living theology that produces godly action. You might think of it as living mercy.

And we are going to pick up where we left off last week at verse 3. The first thing that we see is that dynamic mercy ministries requires more than simply godly leaders and godly members. There also needs to be an effective organization of the leadership and of the ministries. Who was leading these ministries at this point? It was the apostles, right? Look at chapter 4:35. It speaks of all of the stuff that was being used for mercy ministries and it says that they "laid them at the apostles' feet; and they" [that is, the apostles] "distributed to each as anyone had need." It looks like they were the only leaders involved. And it's no wonder they were running ragged. Look at verse 37. "Having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet." You see the same emphasis all the way through chapter 5. Now nobody is going to question that these were godly, Spirit-filled men. But we saw last week that they were going so fast in every direction with so many responsibilities, that they were not doing their jobs well. Chapter 6:1 makes that very clear. This was a huge ministry oversight. And let me assure you that if the apostles could be so busy that they overlooked major problems like the two we looked at last week in verse 1, it can happen to any of us. They were overwhelmed, and in verse 2 began to realize that there needed to be a division of labor. In fact, I see the transition in chapter 6 as being much like the revolutionary transition that happened for Moses in Exodus 18 when Jethro came to him and said that his leadership was not working well, and that he need to make some adjustments. It's encouraging to me that the apostles struggled just like we do. But they were willing to make changes.

And so, back in chapter 6 of Acts, this is where I find the interplay between apostles and members to be so interesting in verses 3-6. The apostles didn't appoint people that they thought might be nice to work with. It might have been tempting. And if anyone had the authority to do that, it would be apostles. But they recognized that they needed the wisdom of the multitude in the selection process. The apostles make it very clear that they want men who have already demonstrated a deacon's heart through their prior ministry. And who is in a better position to know who has been doing that effectively, than those who are at the grassroots level.

So verse 3 says, "Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men…" Verse 5 says, "And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen" [and the other six mentioned in that verse]. Verse 6 says, "whom they set before the apostles…" This is as clear a statement against episcopacy as you can get. In Episcopal style churches the people do not get to choose. The bishop chooses their officers for them. And he can take away a congregation's pastor any time that he wants. But in this chapter we see that the people choose who will lead them in their own ministries. After all, it is the people who minister, right? It's not just the leaders who minister. They equip the saints for the work of the ministry. So it makes perfect sense that the people would pick the ones that they believe could best lead them in the work that they are already engaged in.

But, this is not a pure democracy either. It is a constitutional republic, and the only leaders that can be elected by the people are leaders who meet the Biblical qualifications that the apostles have laid down. Verse 3 says, "Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men" [So they specified how many they needed. And they then laid down qualifications…] "of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business…" It is clear that the apostles delegate authority and ministry to these new deacons. So there is a clear chain of authority from apostles to deacons to people, but it is the people who choose the officers. All of this fits the Presbyterian model perfectly.

So with that as a general overview of what is happening, let's look at these five verses phrase by phrase. And I think you will see that these are revolutionary words. Verse 3 begins with a "Therefore…" The raising of deacons is because verse 2 says, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables…" The burdens of ministry were necessitating the division of labor and specialization. It's true that later we still see the apostles occasionally engaged in some mercy ministries. It's not an absolute division of labor. But they had to relinquish some of their work in order to be more effective in what they were especially called to.

"Therefore, brethren…" Notice that the apostles do not lord it over the congregation. They see themselves as fellow brothers, and they appeal to them rather than dictating to them. Verse 5 says that the saying pleased the whole multitude, but if it hadn't – I guess there wouldn't have been any officers. The people pick, right? Or at least it was the brethren – the heads of households who elected them. And the point that I learn from this is that leadership is not dictated. It is a trust that is won. And the humility of the apostles is a model for us.

"Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you." Those words make two corrections to the professionalism of modern America. First, they indicate that leadership of mercy ministries is best accomplished by people who are homegrown rather than people imported from outside. There are churches that will hire on people from another state to head up their mercy ministries, but think about this: if the church is already engaging in charity (which they were), there are bound to be those who will rise to the level of leadership. And if they aren't engaged in charity, importing gifted leadership from outside will not change that. They will continue to let George do it. And it highlights the fact that in chapters 2 and 4 it was the people who took on this ministry. A church that only throws money at the problem through a hired professional is completely missing the boat. The solution to both leadership and ministry is in the body.

But the second correction that those words make to the modern church is that God expects the church to carry its own weight on charity, and not to rely on the unbelievers in government. In fact, it is a shameful thing to see churches who refuse to have mercy ministries because they insist that this is the role of the Welfare State. No, mercy ministries and the leadership for mercy ministries must come from among you – the believers. This is a church function, not a state function.

Verse 3 goes on – "seven men…" The word for "men" is males, not the general word for men or person. This was a strict qualification for office among the Jews, and this was later codified in 1 Timothy 3. That doesn't mean that women were not involved in mercy ministries. They were. Tabitha in chapter 9 would be a prominent example. But leadership of office was always reserved for males. Some people think that deacons aren't leaders. So women can serve. But deacons do lead and organize the ministry of mercy.

Just one side note that may or may not be significant is that the apostles appointed deacons long before they appointed elders in the church. And I find that rather curious. It is not until chapter 11 that any elders are mentioned in the church. And to me this implies the incredible importance of this office of deacon.

But why the number 7? No one has been able to come up with an adequate explanation other than the fact that they needed that many people to do the job. Jewish synagogues frequently had fewer deacons, and as the congregations would grow, more were added. But it is an important point of polity that the session appoints the number needed. Though the congregation was the one who elected the deacons, they couldn't decide that they would elect 25 or 50 instead of seven. Since the ministry is delegated from the session, the session determines how many deacons are needed at any given time. So you will never have a situation in a large church where there are 15 more deacons than there is work for. It's an interplay between leadership and membership that is nicely laid out in the BCO.

He goes on… "men of good reputation." This is the first of three general headings that are given in this chapter. Those same three headings are amplified in 1 Timothy 3, as to what exactly that would look like. But it is significant that he starts with the whole issue of men who have the respect of the whole congregation. They need to have a reputation if they are going to have the love and respect of the people who they will lead. While a hated person could theoretically supervise, he really couldn't lead. Nobody would follow him. This is one of the reasons why some churches have elections every four years or so. The same person can serve without interruption for his whole life. But he needs to have the respect and the backing of the people. And 1 Timothy 3 amplifies this general character qualification by saying that he needs to be tested in ministry where everyone can see that he is qualified before he is ordained. He needs to be dignified, honest, not overusing wine, generous, etc. So first of all, he has to have a good reputation and have the respect of the people.

The next over-arching qualification is that He needs to be empowered by the Spirit. And I find this to be quite a correction to modern notions about the office. It shows that the apostles thought much more about this office than some moderns do. It shows that without the Spirit, we will not be able to engage in the kind of mercy ministries that are transformational. It's not something that just anyone can be plugged into. Notice that the condition for being a deacon is not that they these candidates have made it in business, have accounting skills, love to serve on committees, are good givers. In many churches, that would make you a shoe in. After all, some people think, this is an office that deals with money, bodies and things. What more do you need? But the apostles insist that a deacon must be "full of the Holy Spirit."

I want to look more in depth at this concept of being full of the Spirit, full of faith, full of power when we pick up at verse 8 in the future, because I think that faith, power and Spirit are all needed for the kind of transformational work that I long to see in Omaha. But for now, let me make three preliminary observations.

My first observation is that God does not separate the spiritual from the physical. It takes the Holy Spirit to prosper our working with the building, our giving a cup of cold water, our finances, healing and anything else that needs to get done. It takes the Holy Spirit to do diaconal work in a way that will transform a church and a city. It takes the Holy Spirit's insight to discern when a handout will make a situation worse rather than better. It takes the fullness of the Spirit to take this beyond what mere talent can do into what only God can receive the glory for. It takes the Holy Spirit to have the boldness of faith that Paul requires of deacons in 1 Timothy 3. Anyone who sees diaconal work as secular work has missed the boat. There is no sacred/secular dichotomy in the Bible.

A second thing that is implied in this need for the Spirit's fullness is that there is a spiritual gifting that is needed for this office. You wouldn't want to put a person into the position if he was not gifted for it. It would just drive him crazy. There would need to be leadership skills, and either the gift of helps or the gift of service. And in my series on the Holy Trinity I demonstrated how the gift of helps is the closest reflection of the character of the Holy Spirit (whose name is Helper) as you can get. Just as the Holy Spirit delights in pushing Jesus into the limelight and prefers to not put Himself forward, people with the gift of helps don't want to be in the spotlight. They are not comfortable there. God's Spirit has so worked in their lives that they prefer to help others become a success. It's an amazing thing. In fact, nothing makes their heart feel so glad as when they are able to help another person to succeed in what they are called to. That's what gives them a sense of fulfillment. And they feel somewhat embarrassed if you complement them too much or praise them too much. They do want to feel appreciated and needed, but they enjoy helping. I believe that this gift of the Spirit is perhaps the closest reflection of the heart of the Holy Spirit.

The third observation that I would make is that a person who is full of the Holy Spirit is controlled by the Holy Spirit. And we will look at that more under verse 8. But it definitely deals with moral and character qualifications.

So there was the issue of reputation, there was the empowering of the Holy spirit. And thirdly, there was the need for wisdom. He is not only full of the Holy Spirit, but "full of wisdom." The more you understand about the potential pitfalls of mercy ministries, the more you realize the need for the wisdom of Solomon. The more times you get hoodwinked by con-artists, the more you will call out to God for discernment. The more you understand the potential for using mercy ministries to overthrow Satanic territories, the more wisdom will need to come to surface. The office of deacon is an incredibly important office, and if it is done well, it is very demanding.

Verse 3 ends by saying, "whom we may appoint over this business." The word business is literally the word "necessity." Once again, this highlights the fact that, even though the Word takes priority, mercy ministries is not an option. It is a necessity.

Also notice that the apostles were in charge of the deaconal ministry by way of delegation and oversight even as the Book of Church order puts the elders in charge today.

Verse 4. "But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." Notice that prayer comes first. And it makes sense. Unless God prospers the preaching, counseling, exhortation and other ministries of the word, they will not have an impact. Week after week the teaching will go in one ear and out the other. We are totally dependent upon God and thus called to prayer. While the prayer meeting shows the true character of the church, the prayer closet of an elder shows the true character of his work. An eldership that is too busy to pray is too busy, period.

But notice the second half. They are not only given continually to prayer, but continually to the ministry of the Word. Ephesians 4:11-13 indicates that if the ministers do not preach the full counsel of God the people will fail, and if the people fail, the ministry as a whole will fail. And this is why the apostles were ruthless in hacking away anything that would hinder them from effectively teaching. They did not want to be distracted. To prepare properly for the pulpit is hard, time consuming work for a preacher. But it is important that he set aside the distractions, however important and however good they may be.

Verse 5 says, "And the saying pleased the whole multitude." Notice that it is not wrong for a congregation to be pleased with a preacher. Though a preacher should not be striving for the praises of men, and though his goal must be to please God, and not men, if men and women are filled with the Spirit, they will be pleased when the whole counsel of God is given.

Again, notice that the apostles got a confirmation vote from the congregation. They did not rule with an iron fist and insist on their way. The congregation willingly helped, but it was their choice.

Verse 5 goes on… "And they chose" [that word "chose" was used by Plato to refer to their political elections - NIDNTT]. Every officer in the church was elected by the congregation. They are your representatives, and it is the inalienable right of a congregation to choose who will lead them, or to unchoose them.

But notice who they chose. Every one of these people has Greek names. That doesn't necessarily prove that they were Hellenists as some have thought. For example, some of the Hebrew apostles had Greek names. Philip is as Greek a name as you can get. But it does prove that every one of them at least knew how to speak Greek. They came from Greek speaking background and thus were able to minister to both the Hebrews and the Hellenists. And so it shows incredible sensitivity to the diverse cultures represented. It would be like a church requiring that every deacon be able to speak both English and Spanish if we were ministering in a community that had large numbers of Spanish speakers. So it really was quite a concession on the part of the Hebrews. They were seeking to be sensitive to the minority Hellenists.

"And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit." Why would being full of faith be an important qualification? I think the reason is in part because people with the gifts of helps and service have a dangerous tendency to become maintenance oriented and to love the status quo. Faith counteracts this tendency and transforms deacons into people who will attempt great things for God. Faith is needed to keep people from being bean counters who dig in their heals and slow down progress. Faith is needed to see opportunities where others see only impossible obstacles. And that is a leadership function. Faith is needed when faced with an incurable disease, or with financial impossibilities or with spiritual battles. Faith will enable deacons to catch the vision of the leadership and even to go beyond the vision of others in doing amazing things through limited diaconal funds and limited people resources. The goal of the deacon should be to take the city for King Jesus and to use his own giftings and the giftings of the church to do so. Mercy ministry has historically been one of the greatest vehicles for advancing the cause of Christ. But it takes faith to see that. And you look at missionaries like Hugh Goldie in the Old Calabar on the West Coast of Africa, and you see one of many examples of people who had faith to see horrible pro death and demonic customs changed because of godly, faith-driven diaconal ministries.

Stephen is soon to be martyred. You can't have this kind of culture changing work without raising up opposition. Philip is mentioned later in the book. Prochorus is mentioned in church history as being the secretary for the apostle John, later getting ordained as the pastor of Nicomedia, and later being martyred. So we know about three of these names.

But we know nothing at all about the other four names listed in verse 5. But that itself teaches us something. It shows us that so much of God's work is carried on by unknown, unsung heroes who are quite content to let other people be in the spotlight. I am convinced that their rewards will be great in heaven. And I think that their unsung status is a test of our own motives for ministry.

Verse 6 shows the ordination of the deacons. "Whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them." You may not realize that there is a big debate on whether there are three offices or two offices. And there are some three office advocates in the OPC that are pretty close to the PCA's two-office view. We hold to the two office view, but recognizing three orders. But there has been a movement among those who hold to the three office view to secularize the eldership and to secularize the deaconate and to keep both as unordained, occasional roles that are filled by lay people. But I think Scripture is quite clear that they are ordained by the laying on of hands. They receive authority from the Lord. They represent the Lord. Pastors are not unique in this, even though they have a different office and different authority. And so, let's honor the office of deacon. Let us not secularize that office.

Verse 7 gives the results. "Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." This division of labor did not simply add workers. Through the synergy of combined ministries to body and soul, it multiplied the work exponentially. You cannot overstate the importance of the office of deacon. The joint work of apostles and deacons contributed enormously to the conquest of Satanic territory.

But to me this reinforces once again that there was something far different about the diaconal ministry of the early church than what characterizes the diaconal ministry of many churches today. Now there are notable exceptions. I have witnessed churches that have awesome and biblical diaconal ministries that do not usurp the role of the family, and that do not pretend to be a small counterpart of the state welfare system. I think Morecraft's church in Georgia would be one example. And I would urge you to read books by George Grant if you are curious about what that would look like in other churches. Books like Bringing in the Sheaves or IN the Shadow of Plenty. The Bible calls for something different than your typical diaconal program – something that would make Satan tremble. Something that promotes maturity and progress among the poor; something that honors the role of business; something that removes dependency and creates self-sufficiency.

It is obvious to me that Luke wants us to see a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the ministry of new deacons and the progress of the church. "Then the word spread…" That makes sense because the apostles are freed up to focus on what they are doing well. But it also makes sense for another reason: the deacons privately ministered God's Word in conjunction with their mercy ministries.

"Then the word spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem…" It was already multiplying in verse 1, so we have compounded multiplying as deacons organize the church in their own effective mercy ministries.

The last phrase says, "and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." That means that they submitted to the whole counsel of God. When you understand that the priests were primarily of the Saduccean persuasion, there was a whole lot of changes that happened in their doctrines when they got converted. To me this is encouraging. As Derek Carlson says, "even the hardest hearts and the most intelligent minds are not beyond the power of God's grace. We must remember that it is the Word and Spirit that convert people, not our wisdom."

I think this passage shows us that the state can never effectively compete with the living mercy that was demonstrated in Acts. A bureaucracy in Washington DC can never have the life-giving mercy that God expects the church to have. But then, neither can a church bureaucracy. Though these mercy ministries were organized, they were not merely programs. They were the life giving work of the Holy Spirit ministering through the frailty of Christian relationships. May we be a church that aspires to the living mercy shown here. Amen.

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