I have been preaching a series of messages on the nature of the church's identity and calling. The next three posts are portions of last Sunday's message from Acts 6:1-7...
In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander says to his beloved Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” What is true of love in this case is also certainly true in the church. Life in the body of Christ never does run smooth. After the formation of the church at Pentecost we read those wonderful words at the end of Act 2 where the church’s commitment to God’s truth, their deep fellowship, and participation in corporate worship and prayer is so beautifully described. The text ends with that wonderful statement, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:47).
It isn’t long however before problems begin to arise. In chapter four, Peter and John, the church’s most important leaders at this time are hauled before the authorities and arrested for preaching Christ crucified and risen. In chapter five we are told the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Their lying and hypocrisy resulted in God striking them dead. Later in chapter five persecution increases and the apostles are arrested yet again.
Think about it. In a relatively short period of time the young church has had to deal with persecution from without and hypocrisy from within. These are the enemy’s incursions into the King’s territory. But through it all Luke continues to point out that the believers still held everything in common and the Word of God continued to spread. In fact, the way the first six chapters of Acts are written seem to indicate that there was a problem that posed a greater threat to the young church than persecution from the civil and religious authorities. And that’s where I want us to begin unpacking this text.
1. The Problem
This particular text begins with what are certainly encouraging words – “In those days…the number of disciples was increasing.” Who among us is going to not be excited about such a thing? Wouldn’t it be great if when the history of our city is written that during our days “the number of disciples was increasing”? But we ought not to be naïve. Hand-in-hand with the increase of the church numerically was also the increase of problems. In any organization, as the number of people involved increases so too does the complexity and the number of problems. How much more true is this in the church where the powers of Satan are arrayed against us? Where the souls of men and women are at stake?
The problem is that a complaint arose between two groups within the church. Now, the fact that two separate groups are being mentioned here is a subtle but profound clue to the real problem.
This is the first mention of division and grumbling within the ranks. Prior to this moment we have been told that there was glad and sincere fellowship; that all the believers held everything in common. It was an extraordinary work of God’s Spirit acting through the Gospel to unite. So this verse is heartbreaking, really.
For the first time, this young and vibrant church is not “one.” The two groups were, literally, The Hellenistai and The Hebraioi. The Hellenistai were Jewish Christians steeped in Greek culture. Some of them were also Gentiles who converted to Judaism and were then converted to Christ. They came from outside Jerusalem. They spoke Greek and had been shaped by Greek culture. The Hebraioi, on the other hand, were Jewish Christians born and raised in Jerusalem. They spoke Aramaic and had been shaped by Jewish culture.
Although both groups were Jewish converts to Christ those born and immersed in Hebrew culture would have been seen as just a little more pure. Do you see how explosive this could be? The problem is that the Hellenistic converts were observing that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Can you imagine how this would make you feel?
As one shaped by Greek culture you already feel like a second-class citizen in this church. You’re living in Jerusalem now which is a new place to you. The others in the church speak the predominant language in the city and understand the culture much better than you. What is more, you a pretty sure that the Hebrew group sees you as maybe just a little unclean – baggage from their former Judaism.
You now see that your widows are getting short-changed in the distribution of food and you can’t shake the feeling that it must be intentional neglect. The Roman army had a strategy that they called divide et impera – “divide and conquer.” And this is exactly what the enemy is doing to the church. And why not? It works doesn’t it?
The language is interesting. The complaint arose against the Hebrews. The complaint did not arise concerning the issue. The complaint arose against the other group. This was personal. The church has already begun to split. It’s becoming tribal. It’s becoming “us and them.” And to make it even more touchy is the fact that there is a racial / cultural dimension to it. There are long-held religious sentiments in operation: Which group is more pure? Which group is just a little unclean?
How are the apostles going to shepherd this church through these dangerous waters?