Running on Empty?

A Study of Acts 6

Introduction: It’s been a long time since I ran out of gasoline, but a lot of times I drive on fumes. I hate to stop and fill up my car, and so I wait until the last possible gallon. It’s one thing to do that on the highways of Tennessee; it’s another thing to do that on the highway of life. Last year I spoke at a leadership event, and I told how I had nearly run out of gasoline on the Interstate highway before finally locating a service station. I told them how stressful that had been, and I suggested I didn’t want to operate on empty as a leader.  In our work for the Lord, we don’t need to run of fumes. My analogy became a great topic of conversation in the follow-up session, as one leader after another confessed to running on empty. We are God’s vehicles. We are vehicles for His glory, for His gospel. We need to keep our gauges on full.

Well, in our studies through the book of Acts, we’re coming to that topic. I love reading Acts 6 because it takes us right inside the church and it shows us the first internal conflict and how it was handled. It also gives us two major principles for church growth. We all want to have a growing church; but for a church to grow and to keep growing, what do we need. The setting is in verse 1.

Verse 1: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing… The church was growing because of the natural evangelistic excitement of its members. One thing I’d like to ask Luke if I could do so is how long had the church been in existence. Was the church six months old, or five years old? The New American Commentary speculates that this incident may have occurred “perhaps five years or so after Pentecost.” It takes about five minutes to read Acts 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 – and so it seems to us all these events were compressed and were happening in a short time period. But probably there has been some time that has elapsed. It appears the church had grown and settled into some basic patterns, one of which was distributing food to widows. But that’s when the first problem arose.

…the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

The totality of church was still Jewish at this point. Everyone who was a Christian was either a Jew or a Jewish Proselyte, which is a non-Jew who adopted the Jewish faith. The work among the Gentiles had not yet begun. And yet this was not a homogeneous group. The Jews had a lot of divisions among them, and some of these divisions continued after they had found Christ as Savior. The primary division in this chapter is between the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews.

The Babylonian Empire had defeated the Jewish people in 587 B.C., or about 600 years before the birth of Christ. Some of these Jews had migrated back to the land of Israel as part of the remnants under Zerrubabal and under Ezra and they were very Hebraic, very Jewish. They spoke Aramaic. Perhaps they spoke Greek, but they didn’t like speaking Greek. It was a pagan language. Aramaic was much closer to their original Hebrews. But others had been part of the diaspora and had more recently come to the land of Israel. They spoke Greek and perhaps didn’t know Aramaic at all. They came from Egypt or Italy or Antioch or Asia Minor. They were probably more liberal in their practices. Perhaps they went to the theater or to the gymnasium. They had been educated in the style of the classical Greek culture. These two groups were culturally different, and it was most obvious in their linguistic differences. The Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek; and the Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic.

We have something like this going on here. There is one church meeting in this building, but that one church is manifested in two congregations. One is English speaking, which met this morning; the other is Spanish speaking, which met this afternoon.

The issue that brought these two groups into a disagreement was the food distribution ministry of the church. It was apparently administered by the Hebraic Jews, and perhaps became of language misunderstandings the Hellenistic widows didn’t feel they were being cared for. And that brings us to the first precondition for growing congregations. It’s very easy for leaders of the ministries of a church to become too busy. They try to do everything themselves. They try to be a one-man windmill. They end up with a heavier load than anyone can bear. But the Twelve disciples show us that good leaders know how to delegate so they don’t become drained.

1. Good Leaders Know How to Delegate So They Don’t Become Drained (Verses 1-7)

Verse 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.

I’m sure the Twelve would have gladly waited on tables if that was what God had called them to do. But they had been called to a life of preaching and of praying with people. If they diverted their attention to food distribution, the ministry of preaching would suffer. All the work would become bottlenecked. What was needed was another layer of leadership.

Verse 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.

I’m not sure why they said seven, but it might have been a very logical thing. Perhaps there were seven zones or sections of the city. The other possibility is they were thinking of a passage I’ll share in a few moments, Exodus 18, about Moses delegating his job to the seventy elders. Seven was a special number to the Jews and I read somewhere that Jewish courts were made up of a panel of seven judges. Perhaps the apostles didn’t need seventy, but they choose seven in honor of Exodus 18 and in keeping with their Jewish tradition. At any rate, the need was for men who were full of the Spirit and full of wisdom. They needed spiritual zeal and organizational ability.

Verse 4:and we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This has been a compelling verse for me over the years. I believe God has called me to the ministry of prayer and the word, and while I have leadership and managerial responsibilities, I’ve tried to do as the apostles did and exercise wise delegation.

Verse 5: This proposal pleased the whole group. They choose 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.

These are all Hellenistic Jews. The first two will play important parts in the book of Acts as preachers and evangelists. The other five do not appear again in the biblical story and we know little about them.

Verse 6: They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. This is a kind of ordination. It is delegation. It is saying, “I am taking my responsibility, my authority, my spirit, my passion and I’m passing it on to you.” I don’t have time to trace this through the book of Acts, but you can study:

  • Acts 6:6
  • Acts 8:17-19
  • Acts 9:12 & 17
  • Acts 13:3
  • Acts 19:6
  • Acts 28:8

Verse 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.

As the church got itself organized with layers of leadership, the bottleneck was opened and the ministry continued to thrive and grow. Even many Jewish priests were becoming Christ-followers. Now, what happened to the church in developing layers of leadership also happened in a very similar way in Exodus 18:13-27. It’s fascinating to compare Exodus 18 with Acts 6. Both the emerging nation of Israel and the emerging church encountered the same problem early in the process of growth. It became apparent that one person or one group of people was trying to do too much. That was bottlenecking the entire operation and stifling growth. So an organizational chart was created and the work was systematized and delegated to gifted people. Layers of leadership were added. The organizational chart was deepened. That allowed the leaders to be overseers rather than implementers, and the work prospered.

If I am doing anything that somebody else can reasonably do, I’m depriving them of the work God has assigned to them. If Moses had rejected the advice of Jethro, he would have deprived the other men of the ministry God wanted to give to them. If the Apostles had continued trying to feed the widows, they would have deprived the seven of the work God wanted to give them.

There is the question as to whether these seven men could be called the first deacons. I think the answer is yes. The Greek word from which our English word “deacon” is derived is all the way through this passage. Now, they are not actually called “deacons.” They were called the Seven (see Acts 21:8).

I want to show you this.

  • We have the Twelve, and they are called by that term. Look at verse 2: So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together. This was the apostolic band. Notice that in the NIV the word Twelve is capitalized, indicating it was a title.
  • We have the Seven, and they are called by that term. Look at Acts 21:8. Here the writer, Luke, says, Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. This is the same Philip. Here he is called one of the Seven, and notice that in the NIV the word Seven is capitalized, indicating it is a title.

So you have the Twelve and you have the Seven. The Twelve are more involved in the ministry of the Word and Prayer; the Seven more involved in the tangible meeting of the needs of the congregation, although two of these Seven were also active in preaching. These groups were not called pastors and deacons, or elders and deacons, or overseers and deacons; but they established the organizational grid.

Now look at Philippians 1:1: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

And in 1 Timothy 3, we have two offices designated by ordination and title—the overseer and the deacon.

So perhaps in a technical sense, we wouldn’t call the Seven deacons, yet that Greek term is used to describe them and it seems that the basic organization of two ordained offices was established here in Acts 6. So, in that sense I believe these seven men were, in today’s terms, the first deacons. It shows that the church isn’t just an organism but an organization. Anytime you have thousands of people you have to have organization. You have to have effective organizational systems. You have to have good leadership and management. A lot of churches stop growing because they don’t develop the organizational systems to facilitate more growth. They become bottlenecked with leaders who don’t delegate and who try to do everything themselves and in the process burn themselves out.

2. Good Leaders Know How To Keep Themselves Filled So They Will Be Effective (Verses 8-15)

The second thing we need for continued church growth is spiritual people who know how to keep themselves filled. Here in this passage we have seven of these men, but from verse 8 the attention focuses on one of them—Stephen. And the key term in his life is the term “full” or “filled.”

Verses 8-9: Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia – who began to argue with Stephen.

Before his conversion, Stephen had likely been part of a Jewish synagogue. Jerusalem had the Jewish Temple, but it was also full of synagogues. Let me give you a modern parallel. If you visit Rome, you can visit St. Peters, but you’ll also notice that the city is filled with churches in every neighborhood and on every street. The people who live in Rome may go to St. Peters on special occasions, but normally they go to their neighborhood churches. That’s the way it was in Jerusalem. They went to the temple when they wanted, but they also attended their local synagogues. Well, Stephen apparently belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen, which was made up of Hellenistic Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria and Cilicia and Asia. Perhaps one of the other members of this synagogue was Saul of Tarsus, because he was from Cilicia. He had evidently only recently come to Jerusalem for future studies and was getting very caught up in the drama of the growth of the Christian movement.

Verses 10-11: But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

Stephen’s message was that we cannot be saved by keeping the Law of Moses; the Law of Moses was simply given to identify our sinfulness. The grace of God was revealed in Jesus Christ, and He is the one who saves us—not Moses.

Verse 12-14: So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

This is very similar to the charges made against Christ during His trial before the same group.

Verse 15: All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. What does that mean? I don’t know. There are two possibilities. One is that the face of Stephen actually began to glow, like the face of Moses after he had been in the presence of the Lord in Exodus 33, or the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. I believe that heavenly faces glow. I believer our faces will glow in heaven, and that the faces of angels glow. We soak up the light of the presence of God and it gives a luminescent quality to our countenance. The other possibility is that Stephen’s face didn’t not actually glow in some kind of supernatural way, but that it conveyed a peace, a joy, a cheerful confidence, a serenity that was unnatural for someone under such pressure. And then, as we move into chapter 7, Stephen begins to speak and he makes one of the longest sermons in the book of Acts. The response to his sermon provides Christian history with its first major turning point and with its first martyr.

But the thing I want you to notice is how obviously God uses the words “filled” and “full” to describe Stephen.

  • Acts 6:3 says he was full of the Spirit and wisdom.
  • Acts 6:3 says he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit
  • Acts 6:8 says he was a man full of God’s grace and power.
  • Acts 7:55 says again that he was full of the Holy Spirit.

Seven times this man — on of the seven — was said to be filled. He was full of the Spirit, full of wisdom, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace, full of power, and again full of the Holy Spirit. He ran on full.

Conclusion: If you were a car and the Lord were checking your gauges – the fuel indicators of the Holy Spirit, of wisdom, of faith, of God’s grace, of power, what would it say? You are a vehicle for God’s service.  A church badly needs good leaders; and good leaders know how to keep themselves from becoming drained; and they know how to run their lives and their ministries on full. Let’s check our gauges often. Let’s run on full.