Pastoral Priorities — Part One
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Pastoral Priorities — Part One

Acts 6:1–7  (ID: 2875)

The leadership of the early church devoted themselves to prayer and to preaching. When a dispute arose that threatened the unity of the church, they faced the temptation to reorder their priorities. Instead, as Alistair Begg explains, the leaders took a firm stand on the priority of preaching. Although good works bear witness to the Gospel message, it is only through the Word of God proclaimed that men and women come to faith in Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 6

Series ID: 23007

Basics 2012

“We will devote ...” Series ID: 23512

Sermon Transcript: Print

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. 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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and … the ministry of the word.’ 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

“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.”


Now, it took me a little while to realize this, but I suddenly thought it would be entirely appropriate if at least one of us in the preaching team would address ourselves to the actual passage out of which we find our theme for these few days together—namely, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Now, you may have looked at that as a heading for the conference and said, “Well, there is no way that the people there at Parkside can be accused of chasing novelty or of striving for any sense of originality.” And in actual fact, as I’ve told people about the conference—some had asked, “And do you have a conference this time?” We said “Yes,” and they said, “And what is the theme?” And I said, “Well, ‘We will give ourselves, devote ourselves, to prayer and the ministry of the word.’” And in not a few cases, there was almost the kind of sympathetic gesture on their part. The inference being, “Oh, have you run out of good ideas? A conference on praying and preaching?”

But this is Basics 2012. We’re not here primarily to discover things that we’ve never known but rather to be reminded of truths that we must never forget. And there is surely nothing more basic, nothing more essential, to the office of the pastor than the feeding of the flock of God by the prayerful, diligent preaching of the Bible. In fact, John Owen referred to it as the primary pastoral duty, and he wrote at some length concerning the necessity of the pastor being effective in the performance of his primary pastoral duty. Let me quote to you from John Owen, later on in that same volume; it’s volume 16: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by [the] preaching of the word. … This is by teaching or preaching the word, and no otherwise. … He who do[es] not, or can not, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever [the] outward call or work he may have in the church.”[1]

“In These Days”

Luke begins chapter 6 by the phrase “Now in these days…” And in order that we might put that phrase in the wider context, it is important that we understand what these days to which he refers actually were. And if you will indulge me, I want us to go back and just run through until we get to the end of chapter 5—and I don’t plan on taking a long time to do it. But I want us to understand, when we get back to the phrase “Now in these days,” that the declaration that is made here by the apostles in this little section is entirely in keeping with everything that has gone before and is entirely in keeping with everything that will follow. Both the precepts that will then be given to the church via the Epistles and the practice which is described for us here by Luke in the Acts combine in these essentials. And what we discover—and this is no surprise to us—is that as the church is begun, so the Evil One is relentlessly working against the gospel from the very start, seeking by any means at all to stop the spread of the gospel in its tracks, because he is the very mortal enemy of the faith. And so, what we’re really doing is we’re taking a Google Map approach to these early chapters in order that we might set them in context. And as you know, you can start that map from a fairly wide perspective, and then you finally can narrow it down right to the text and place.

So, let’s just notice that after the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, we find in 1:14—no surprise—that all those “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” So from the very beginning, in obedience to what Jesus has said—“I don’t want you to leave the Jerusalem precincts until the Holy Spirit has been sent to you in his fullness”[2]—and so they go into this upper room, and they devote themselves to prayer.

Luke then records for us Pentecost. And at Pentecost, what do you discover? You discover that the praying, which has been met by the fullness of God, sets them free to tell the mighty acts of God. That was what was happening. In verse 11, people from the Jews, the proselytes, the Cretans, the Arabians said, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”[3] And it’s not wrong, is it, to notice that Pentecost actually blossoms into this amazing sermon that is preached by Peter? And you will notice that in verse 22, he is there declaring, “Men of Israel, hear these words,” colon, and then immediately out of his mouth, “Jesus of Nazareth.”[4] It is entirely appropriate that the preacher would stand to say, “Men and brethren, hear these words,” and it is a happy day when the next word out of the mouth of the preacher is “Jesus of Nazareth,” rather than another bunch of twaddle which we might be tempted to spew up. No, his sermon is then completed, and we discover this amazing response to the preaching: they “received his word,” verse 41; they “were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls,” give or take one or two.

And they then devoted themselves to “The Nine Marks”—which is remarkable, given that they’d never read that book, but they were on it immediately, and wonderfully so. And we recognize that. Teaching and, once again, praying: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” to “the fellowship, to the breaking of bread,” and to “prayers.”[5] Preaching and praying. Then you have healing. And then on the back of a healing, you have preaching. And then on the back of the preaching, you have growth. And by the time you get to 4:4, “Many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of … men came [now] to about five thousand.”

And Luke then tells us that the advance, the multiplication, of the work of the Word is followed by disruption and by persecution. And the religious authorities bring them in, and in 4:18, “They called them,” they “charged them not to speak or [to] teach at all in the name of Jesus.” So there was a prohibition, and there was a warning, and then they were released. And what did they do? Well, in verse 23, you discover that “when they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and … elders had said to them. And when they [had] heard it, they lifted [up] their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord…’”

So immediately, the response is prayer. They’ve preached. The Evil One has opposed them. They’ve been warned. The prohibition has been given. They come back to the gathering. They pray. “And when they had prayed,” then “the place in which they were … was shaken,” verse 31, “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” once again, and they “continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Praying. Shaken. Filled. Bold preaching.

That gives way to the description of unity and generosity that is there at the end of chapter 4: “The full number of those who believed were … one heart … [one] soul,”[6] and they had this wonderful unanimity of heart and purpose and generosity of spirit. And then, right on the back of that, what do you have? The absolute antithesis of generosity. And the generosity is muted and is covered up by the hypocrisy that is represented in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira.

And once again, you have the attack of the Evil One, the death of both of these individuals, 5:11: “And great fear came upon the whole church.” Signs and wonders are done. Once again, prohibition, and this next time, a beating. And we’re now at 5:40, aren’t we? “And when they … called in the apostles, they beat them and [they] charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and [then they] let them go. [And] then they left the presence of the council”—and they said to one another, “That’s enough of this; we’re not doing this anymore! You can only get so many beatings before you have to just pack it up, so let’s go fishing. I think Peter still has a boat; at least somebody in his family does.” No, “then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that [Jesus] is [the Christ].”

Now, all of that then leads to “Now in these days…” And unless we keep that in the forefront of our mind, we might think that somehow or another, this great declaration that is in this section and which is our conference theme somehow or another is a departure for them, and it’s a new venture, they have turned their backs on their early pattern and strategy. But not at all! This has been the way from the beginning, and this is the way right through to the end.

In fact, the best attempts of the Evil One eventually crumble, don’t they? Just back up for a moment, because… Don’t you love the section where once again they’re arrested in the middle of chapter 5? And “the high priest rose up,” verse 17, “and all who were with him … and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and [they] put them in the public prison.” Said, “Now, there you go. That’s enough from you fellows.” And then during the night, you have this dramatic intervention: “During the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out”—and said, “Preach”: “‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ And when they [had] heard this,”[7] they said, “Well, we’ll go out for breakfast, we’ll get a muffin, and maybe in the afternoon we can get back to that. But I’m not feeling so good from the… It was a rough night there for a while.” “And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.”[8] They didn’t waste any time getting about the business.

So now they’re out in the temple precincts, and they’re preaching. Meanwhile, our friend the high priest, he’s come by to see how things are going in the jail. And “when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, [and] all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.” It’s fantastic, isn’t it? It’s funny. And “when the [officers] came, they did[n’t] find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, ‘We found the prison securely locked … the guards [are] standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.’”[9]

Luke, the master of understatement, verse 24: “Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard [this word], they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to.” You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Mr. High Priest! “And someone … told them, ‘Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.”’ What else do you think they were going to do, for goodness’ sake?

And “in these days…” In these days, when they have survived the hostility, when they have moved on from the hypocrisy, they are now confronted by a more subtle and a more potentially damaging attack—very subtle, very clever on the part of the Evil One. The beatings have just made them bold, so perhaps they will be beaten by busyness. Stott, who’s always masterful at this stuff, says, “He tried persecution; it hasn’t done very well. He’s dealt with them in terms of corruption vis-à-vis Ananias and Sapphira. And now he comes to them, and he is attacking them by way of distraction.”[10] “By way of distraction.” Jowett, in his Yale lectures, addressing the question of busyness in the life of the pastor and the multiplicity of responsibilities that are faced, he says, “Gentlemen, we are not always doing the most business when we [are seen] to be [the] most busy.”[11] And here they find themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity of what is before them, and the story unfolds.

Now, I initially planned to do this section in one address. The more I studied it, I realized it would have to be two. And I mention that to you now for your encouragement, because when we get to a certain point, you’ll say, “He should be finishing about now.” And actually, I will be finishing about then. And we will deal with the rest of it, God willing, on Wednesday.

Growth and Grumbling

But I studied it under a number of headings, and the first heading in my notes is simply “Growth and Grumbling.” “Growth and Grumbling.”

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose.” We should note the correlation, incidentally, between 5:42, where they are consistently and continually “teaching and preaching” the news “that the Christ is Jesus”—that there is a direct correlation between what they’re doing and the fact that the disciples were increasing in number. The disciples did not increase in number in a vacuum. They increased in number as a result of the preaching of the gospel. They were bringing this news before the people again and again, arguing from the Old Testament that the Messiah, the Christ, has to suffer and die. And once they’ve brought them to an understanding of that, they are then saying to them, “And this Jesus is that Messiah.”[12] And as a result of that, the number is increasing.

So the problem that gives rise to the grumbling is not that their numbers are dwindling, but in fact, they are developing. And it is presumably becoming apparent that the desire that the apostles had to be involved personally in these daily distributions to the widows are now proving to be unrealistic. You see back in 4:35, you remember, in the place where they were dealing with the needs of the people: people “brought the proceeds of what was sold,” and they “laid [them] at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”[13] The inference seems to be that as the stuff came to the apostles, somehow the apostles were almost directly involved in making sure that it got where it was supposed to go. But now that is unrealistic. The numbers have increased, and they have a problem that has arisen between the Hellenists and the Hebrews.

The disciples did not increase in number in a vacuum. They increased in number as a result of the preaching of the gospel.

Now, I’m going to leave you to delve into your commentaries and learn everything you need to know about the Hellenists and the Hebrews. It’s enough for us to recognize that the distinction here is between the Jews who were living in Jerusalem and the Jews who were part of the Diaspora. The Diaspora Jews were not part of the hub of things, and when you’re not part of the hub of things, you may sense when you come to the hub that you are disenfranchised, whether you are or whether you’re not. And these things, then, may lead to tension in relationships, as has happened here. And the geographical factors and the cultural factors combined to create a disagreement.

And the disagreement is stated for us by Luke: that the Hellenist Jews believed that somehow or another the Hebrew Jewish widows were getting a far better deal in the daily distribution for them. And the program that had been put in place they didn’t like; it wasn’t working to everyone’s satisfaction.

You know, isn’t it a shame when you do your very best to try and do something, and then you’ll find that somebody has to come and tell you, “This is not a good program”? “This is not working well.” What they mean is, “I don’t like it. And it’s not working the way I want it to work.” All of us have more of that in us than we’re prepared to admit. And that is why it is important that we exercise moderation when we are expressing our own opinions about things. Because if we make our opinions the dividing line between success and failure, all of us want our own counsel to be followed. But when our interest is in the unity and the ongoing development of things, then we can put our opinions on the back seat. It’s not easy, but it is essential. That hadn’t happened here, and as a result of these cultural sensitivities and these language difficulties, the problem had arisen. And so a solution was required.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how often food plays into things? And there’s almost a Mosaic ring to this. I thought of that, and you perhaps have done, even as you review it now. But you remember that after Moses has the joyful privilege of leading the people out from the bondage of Egypt, and they cross the Red Sea, and everything is apparently hunky-dory at the end of chapter 14 of Exodus: “The Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” And “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord,” they “believed in the Lord,” they believed “in his servant Moses.”[14] Then they have a little singing time with Moses’s sister and her tambourine, and everything is going absolutely exceptionally well. Until you get to chapter 16:

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, [and] you have brought us … into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”[15]

Moses must have said, “Are you kidding? We just had that wonderful praise time, and you’re here grumbling?” I mean, can our people not at least give us two minutes after the benediction—just two—before they come to announce the problems, the predicaments, the challenges? You don’t have to be very long in pastoral ministry to encounter the grumblers. And sadly, often the occasion is not the occasion here that they’re grumbling because everything is going so wonderfully well. But grumbling they are.

Calvin—and I’m always interested to see the way Calvin applies a text—but Calvin in relationship to this says, “You know, if people grumbled with the apostles, are you surprised they would grumble with us?” And then he writes as follows:

When we hear that there arose grumbling among the apostles, let’s not be surprised if we encounter many stumbling blocks within God’s church today. There is a lot of wickedness. And there are many who are inclined to rebellion and who want everything to be governed according to their insights. The very ones who have less understanding, less judgment and experience, and who are the most presumptuous are the ones who want to rule and direct everybody as they see fit. And yet they go around creating conflicts. They will certainly say, “Why is such and such not done this way? Why can we not do it thus and so?” To make a long story short, God would have to make them a world of their own. If you put a dozen such clever people together, they will claw one another’s eyes out and still presume to govern everybody. Now, I would really like for such governors to know what true Christianity is—namely, that we interact with our neighbors in such a way that we show honor to the other people as Paul instructs. That means that we think more highly of others than of ourselves. But some of them—indeed, the majority—think they have the skill to manage something, such that to hear them tell it, they seem to be angels whom God has sent to restore everything that is badly built. And when it turns out for the worst, they stand there all confused. That is what we need to glean from the first point that Luke deals with in this account.

Okay, Calvin says so, I’ll go with Calvin.

But the presenting problem, as stated—the distribution for the widows—is not the real problem. It merely reveals the deeper issue, which is the threat to the unity and to the stability and to the orthodoxy of the church. If the apostles, who have been called to this task, allow themselves to be sidetracked in this way, then all of God’s purposes for the development of his people will be hindered as a result of it.

The Apostles’ Declaration

And so, when you encounter this growth and this grumbling and you realize that action needs to be taken, then you realize that they deal with it first by declaration and then by delegation. All right? Declaration, delegation.

Let’s just notice the approach that they don’t take. Verse 2: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and [they] said…” Put your hand over that, and imagine the things that they might say, some of it we might be tempted to say today. They didn’t gather them all together and say, “What do you think we ought to do? We’re having a meeting after the service, and we’d like as many opinions as we possibly can. We’ve obviously run into a little difficulty here, and we want to be entirely democratic about it, and we know that many of you are clever individuals and so on. What do you think we ought to do?” They don’t do that. Nor do they bring them all together and say, “Okay, here’s the deal: we’re closing down the Meals on Wheels. There’s far too much arguing about this, we’re sick and tired of it, and your grumbling is getting on our nerves. So poor old widows: no food, no more. Meals on Wheels is finished.” No. Nor do they say, “Well, here’s the deal: we’re gonna stop preaching as of right now. Because too many people are getting converted. And this is a problem. This preaching is bringing people to Christ. People are coming and gettin’ saved; it’s messing everything up. We loved it when it was small, when we were able to do the distribution, and so we’re not going to be doin’ that anymore. In fact, the preaching has stopped; we’re moving to small groups. And you are going to enjoy it, and we’re gonna get it all in place for you. Because we’ve discovered that obviously, clearly, this preaching thing is not the way to go.”

No! None of that. But their response reveals their flexibility. They’re not defensive. They’re not reactionary. They’re actually flexible in relationship to the process. And it reveals their clarity in relationship to their purpose. Flexible about the process, but actually inflexible about their purpose. Clear as to what must happen. And so they make their declaration: “It is not right that we should give up the preaching of the word to serve tables.” That opening phrase is very important, isn’t it? Because it tells us that they are not operating on the basis of expediency. They’re not operating on the strength of what the majority think might be a great idea. No, no, they’re saying, “It isn’t right.” Why isn’t it right? Because it would be a violation of what God had called them to do. They are to feed the flock of God that is in their charge. Peter had received that word directly from Christ.[16] And so it would not be right for them then to take a liberty with it. Again, Stott: they were not at liberty to redirect their labors or to redefine their priority.[17]

Now, we have to be careful that we don’t miss or misconstrue the point they’re making. They are not devaluing the ministry to the widows. They knew their Bibles too well to do that. They knew that the Bible said that God executes justice for the fatherless and the widow.[18] After all, that’s why they were doing what they were doing. They are the ones who had put this in place, in obedience to the Bible. They’re not turning their backs on that now. The ministry must continue. The distinction is that the ministry is now going to continue, but no longer with them practically involved.

Now, it would be easy just to skip over this—and I almost did myself, and then I paused and I said, “You know, what is being said here is actually theological.” This is not just the practicality of wisdom in leadership given a circumstance that is emerged. But in this statement, the apostles are actually telling us what they believe about the preaching of the Word of God—about the priority of the preaching of the Word of God, and how nothing must be allowed to erode that commitment.

“God places,” says Calvin, “no higher value on anything than the preaching of the gospel. The Lord wants his gospel to be proclaimed with such diligence that nothing can hinder its course.” Now, listen to this sentence: “For the only way men come to salvation is through the instruction in what the gospel teaches.” “The only way that men come to salvation is through the instruction in which the gospel teaches.”

The gospel is the announcement of what’s been done by the Lord Jesus Christ in order to make us right with God. And it is an announcement. It is a story. It is a proclamation. It is to be heralded. It is to be made known. It has been conveyed by words. God is a speaking God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[19] God has spoken. He’s spoken through his servants the apostles. The apostles have given to us the inscripturated Word. And therefore, they by their example and by their precept make this clear.

Now, why is this so important? We’ll come back to it later on. What time do we stop, incidentally? It’s five past five. When do we go? Five fifteen? Five thirty! Oh, you should have said, “Five fifteen,” done everybody a favor, but all right. It’s not a problem to me, but… The reason this is so important—and we will come back to this, I think, later on, and I would imagine in our Q and A as well—is this: that we daren’t confuse the gospel with the results of the gospel. We daren’t confuse the announcement of what has been done for us by Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, triumph, ascension, and in his coming, with the fruits and the evidences and the results of the gospel.

Tim Keller has just written a new book. It was sent to me as a manuscript to read and give a commendation for, which I was glad to do. Don’t tell him that I quoted from it, ’cause you’re not allowed to ever quote from anything that was sent to you in this way, so, tough! Keller: “The gospel [is not] a divine rehabilitation program for the world, but … an accomplished substitutionary work.”[20] “The gospel is not a divine rehabilitation program for the world but an accomplished substitutionary work.” Now, what does that mean in these terms here? Well, it means this: that people may be attracted by the loving deeds done for the widows, but the loving deeds done for the widows—those good deeds alone—will not bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They won’t!

We daren’t confuse the gospel with the results of the gospel.

Titus talks about adorning the gospel.[21] But he’s not talking about reconfiguring the gospel. And unless we understand what they are actually saying when they are saying this… They’re not saying this because they are just so committed to the concept of the preaching ministry or of pulpits or anything like that. No, they’re saying, “It isn’t right for us. It isn’t right for us to leave off the preaching of the Word.” Why? Because it is by means of the preaching of the Word that God accomplishes his purposes of salvation. And unless the gospel is preached, it cannot be heard, and if it is not heard, it cannot be believed. And the Francis of Assisi stuff, which every so often we like to trot out because it sounds kind of cool, needs to be seriously addressed: “Preach the gospel all the time. Use words as necessary.” Really? No, the evidences of the gospel, the results of the gospel, the good deeds that flow from the implications of the gospel are not the gospel.

So the declaration that they make is theologically based, it’s based on the apostles’ understanding of the nature of the gospel itself, and it is based on the fact that they understand that their calling, that their ministry, that the privileges they enjoy and the death that they ultimately will die is tied to the fact that they have been made preachers of this Word of God. That’s their declaration.

The Apostles Delegate

Then you have their delegation. Delegation: “It is[n’t] right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers…” Now, any misgivings that may linger in our minds about the possibility that they are really devaluing the ministry to the widows can be settled right here, can’t it? Because if that was the case, they would just have said, “Don’t let’s worry about the widows thing any more. The key thing is that we keep going with the preaching of the Word.” No, that’s not what they’re saying. This is a vital ministry. All these other ministries are vital ministries. It’s not either-or. “No, we must make sure that this is done properly.” And so, there’s nothing casual about what they do. There’s nothing dismissive in their approach, is there? They don’t say, “Well, listen, we’re going to just chuck this and keep going with the preaching, it’s going so well. Find a few people to handle this. As long as they’re well-meaning and willing, it won’t really matter who they are. After all, it’s just the widows and the food and the sandwiches.”

No, they don’t do that. In fact, quite the reverse. You will notice that the process of delegation here is both proactive and it’s interactive. They realize that they are the ones taking the leadership, but there is interaction in the process that runs entirely through it: “Pick out…” “You pick out from among you,” not just anybody that happens to be around in the street that’s interested in giving out sandwiches. No, “Pick out from among you”—from the gathering of the disciples that have been brought together, the followers of Jesus. “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” “You pick them out, and we will appoint them.”

Seven suitable, Spirit-filled, sensible men. Men filled with the Spirit and filled with wisdom. A rare and necessary combination. We have occasion when we find men who are intensely practical and yet at the same time rather unspiritual. We then have people who are wonderfully spiritual and so completely impractical. You wouldn’t want to send them out round the ladies’ houses. They would get lost while they were out there. Just a hopeless bunch; everything would be freezing cold before they got it to the house. Completely impractical. No, he’s saying here that the repute that they enjoy in the community will make sense of the fact that they’re there. The spiritual fullness that they enjoy and the wisdom that they display will then make it easy for the apostles to appoint them to this duty.

When I read this, I thought about my old friend T. S. Mooney, the Irishman, who was a bachelor all of his life. You’ll remember I’ve told you that I asked him on one occasion, when he was in his midseventies, why he’d never married, and he said, “Because the desirable has always been unattainable and the attainable has always been undesirable”—which seemed to make perfect sense. And then he followed it up by saying, “I’d rather go through my life wanting what I don’t have than having what I don’t want.”

And there’s a wonderful principle in that, isn’t there, in relationship to the whole process of delegation? All delegation involves risk. The development of the church demands delegation. There’s no such thing as a one-man ministry when you read the Acts and follow it through into the Epistles—everything channeled through some, you know, megalomaniac, multitalented, multigifted individual. No! And they’re giving a lead in this now. But when we think of doing the thing, when we operate on the same basis and follow their example, we should beware of laying hands on people too suddenly. It’d be better to delay the delegation than to delegate to the wrong person.

And you will notice that they then chose out—having been “pleased,” verse 5, by what was said—these men. You have the big question of whether this is the establishing of the early deacons; I’ll leave you to discuss that over your meal if you so choose. But in actual fact, these men are exercising a role and a function—two of them in particular—that is quite remarkable as it unfolds. And they then set them, verse 6, “before the apostles, and they prayed,” and they “laid their hands on them.” The seven then were commissioned in a fashion that none of them or none of the bystanders would ever forget. And as a result of this, the apostles themselves were going to be able to give themselves to praying and to preaching.

We should beware of laying hands on people too suddenly. It’d be better to delay the delegation than to delegate to the wrong person.

Growth and grumbling. A declaration, a delegation, in order that they might fulfill the calling that they have received and give themselves to the preaching and the praying.

I want to leave it there. I find this session is a challenge. I see your eyes, and it’s often hard; you’ve traveled, and there’s nothing worse than going on and on like a dreadful conservative politician. And that’s a British term; that’s not an American term. So we’ll pray, and I’ll give thanks for the meal. Is that all right? We’re going to sing a song? Are they coming? Then I’ll pray, and then they’ll come while I’m praying, and then we sing a song. All right?

Gracious God and loving Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you for the chance to study it together. Thank you for the pattern that is set before us from Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, entrusting to these undershepherds the privilege and responsibility of feeding the flock. Thank you for the way in which you endued them with power. You enabled them to overcome the hostility that they faced, to deal with the hypocrisy that emerged from within the church, and then to be alert enough to not be sidetracked from doing what was necessary and best by giving themselves to what was still necessary but not best.

We pray that as the conference unfolds, and as we sit under the instruction of your Word, and as we talk together with one another, that you will help us to bring clarity to our own thinking, so that in the challenges that we face and in the way in which we respond to them, that there might be that sense in which we follow after that pattern—following after the pattern of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And so we pray to this end. In his precious name. Amen.

[1] John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and its Government,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 16:74–75.

[2] Luke 24:49 (paraphrased).

[3] Acts 2:11 (ESV).

[4] Acts 2:22 (ESV).

[5] Acts 2:42 (ESV).

[6] Acts 4:32 (ESV).

[7] Acts 5:19–21 (ESV).

[8] Acts 5:21 (ESV).

[9] Acts 5:21–23 (ESV).

[10] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1990), 105. Paraphrased.

[11] J. H. Jowett, “The Perils of the Preacher,” in The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912), 63.

[12] See Acts 17:2–3.

[13] Acts 4:34–35 (ESV).

[14] Exodus 14:30–31 (ESV).

[15] Exodus 16:2–3 (ESV).

[16] See John 21:15–17.

[17] Stott, The Message of Acts, 121.

[18] See Deuteronomy 10:18.

[19] John 1:1 (ESV).

[20] Timothy Keller,Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012),30.

[21] See Titus 2:10.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.