Date: 2 Apr 2023
Speaker: Ps Daniel Tan
Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-15
Blessed Palm Sunday to all. Good to see all of us here in Henderson. If you are here for the first time, may I extend a warm welcome to you.
May I also greet all those who are tuning in online. A Blessed Sunday to you.
This is a very significant week in the Christian calendar. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem leads to His sacrificial death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This is the week that led to the cross being the symbol of the faith. It is at the cross where the wrath and mercy of God meet. The penalty of sin is paid for and the gift of eternal life is offered in Jesus Christ.
Without Easter, our faith will be in vain. So, let’s commemorate Easter together this Friday and next Sunday.
Though the cross of Calvary, the church is formed, healing the divide between Jews and Gentiles. This is the story of the book of Acts which we are going through in 2023. Today we are at chapter 6.
Recently I watched a documentary of a baby giraffe being born in the wild.
It must have been quite a rude shock for the infant animal, being thrust out of a warm and comfortable womb and having to fall from quite a height to the ground. I understand it’s about 6 feet.
Not only is the bump onto the ground a rude shock, there are predators lurking around as well.
For survival, giraffe calves are known to be able to stand within 30 minutes of birth. They are also known to be able to run at full speed and keep up with their mothers and fathers within 10 hours of birth.
From the moment of birth, a giraffe calf is on survival mode.
These last 5 chapters have shown us that the infant church in Jerusalem has been on a survival mode right from the beginning as well.
Satan has been busy trying to kill the infant church.
External threats have happened through the hands of the religious leaders. The Apostles have been called up for questioning, they have been charged not to speak in the name of Jesus and they have been beaten.
Internally, sin has already surfaced through pride and deception with the case of Ananias and Sapphira. In today’s text, we will see further both internal problems and external persecution continuing.
They say that there are 2 unique protective traits of Giraffes. Firstly, because they stand between 16 to 18 feet tall, they are able to observe danger at a much greater distance. This allows them to manoeuvre their young away from danger.
Secondly, they average only 30 minutes of sleep a day, broken into about six five-minute naps. Giraffes only get about 20 minutes of deep sleep every 24 hours. They are every vigilant, ever watchful.
Scripture informs us, God is all knowing and ever alert.
Psalm 121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Even today, the devil will not cease to attack the church. Be it creating internal strife or external conflict.
But we can testify that from the beginning, we have seen that God is ever watchful and ever able to protect His church. Protecting her so that she is enabled to fulfil His purposes.
Internal Problems (v1-7)
A controlling verse of Acts is one we are all familiar with.
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
And throughout the book of Acts, what Luke the author will show is how that is being fleshed out.
Last week in Acts 5, we saw how in spite of beating and warnings not to teach and preach in the name of Jesus, the Apostles continue to do exactly that.
Chapter 5 ends with this description:
Acts 5:42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
Now Satan is not going to sit idly by and allow the preaching of God’s Word to bear fruit in transformed lives.
No, Satan is going to do all he can to disrupt that. Because he has failed with Annanias and Sapphira and was not successful with the religious leaders. Now his plan is to create internal strife.
Priority of the Word & Prayer
I submit, that this internal strife is Satan’s attempt to disrupt the preaching of God’s Word.
This is because v1 to v7, the preaching of God’s Word and the growth of the disciples bookends this episode.
Acts 6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, …. 7And 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.
Between v1 to v7, the Word of God is mentioned 3 times – v2, v4 and v7. And in v4, the Apostles announced that prayer together with the Word is their priority.
So, the internal problems facing the infant church is threatening the priority of the Word and Prayer, thereby impacting negatively the growth of the church.
In the first 5 chapters of Acts, we have observed that though the Apostles did signs and wonders amongst the people, it’s the sermons of Peter that are prominent.
3000 souls were added after Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After Peter peached following the healing of the lame man, Acts 4:4 says many who had heard the word believed and the number was 5000 men.
The devil knows the effectiveness of God’s Word proclaimed and so there is a need for a distractive tension to arise. A complaint by the Greek speaking Jews that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
I googled church growth tactics and a typical website would give pointers such as:
Know Where the Church is Going
Create an Inviting Atmosphere
Create a Welcoming Experience
Care for Church Members
Provide Opportunities to Serve
Proper Management of Church Resources
Embrace The New Normal
Enjoy the Ride
Now as you read the details under each heading, they are very practical tips. Things which you and I would actually agree upon. Things which we ourselves would have seen successfully attempted in organizations.
The thing is, Acts tells us that God’s way of increasing the church is through the preaching and teaching of His Word. The proclamation of Scripture should be the undisputed number 1 growth plan.
Thus, we need to be careful that this focus is not overshadowed by other ministries.
Why do the Apostle’s link it with prayer? It is because of Acts 4:31.
Acts 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
Prayer shows our dependence upon God. For apart from His empowerment, we can do nothing.
The Apostles experienced the unction of the Spirit for through prayer - the Holy Spirit so filled them that they continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
So, prayer and the proclamation of God’s Word go hand in hand. And it should take priority especially for the shepherds of the faith community.
Mercy Ministry an essential complement
In my preparation, I came across this statement:
“Relief work without an explanation of the gospel is certainly a worthwhile venture but not particularly Christian. Christian ministries that only preach the gospel but ignore the practical needs of people are not particularly Christian either.”
The context of Acts 6, implies that the Apostles have been involved in mercy ministry even as they were preaching and teaching God’s Word. But now, due to the expansion of the faith community, certain needs are not being met.
And these needs, that of the Greek-speaking widows, Scripture says is something which is dear to God’s heart.
In those days, wives do not own property and cannot fend for themselves. They are wholly dependent on their husbands.
These Greek-speaking widows likely came from other parts of the Roman empire. They were Jews of the diaspora who now have put down roots in Jerusalem. Now without their husbands, they would likely not have any relatives to depend on.
Both the OT and the NT emphasize care for widows:
Deut 14:28 “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Mercy ministry is close to God’s heart. It is thus to be, an outworking of obedience in the faith.
Scripture shows us that mercy ministry should be a complement to preaching and prayer. The Apostles did not neglect it, they instead made sure that it was taken care of.
And so, we sing the hymn - Brother Let Me Be Your Servant. Stanza 2 says:
We Are Pilgrims On A Journey, We Are Brothers On The Road We Are Here To Help Each Other, Walk The Mile And Bear The Load
Let’s consider again the statement I quoted earlier:
“Christian ministries that only preach the gospel but ignore the practical needs of people are not particularly Christian”
Preaching and prayer vs mercy ministry. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. The wisdom then is priority.
To become the flock of God, to grow as God’s sheep, we need to firstly be fed by the living word of God. And this should then be accompanied by physical, mental and emotional care.
Servant leadership principles
Internal problems will always surface in a faith community. We are not all knowing and all wise. We are sinners saved by grace and so we will fall and we will fail.
The devil will take all these opportunities to drive a wedge within the community. Because when Satan is successful, the proclamation of the Gospel and the witness of the faith community is hampered.
So, the key is how we response, when such internal problems surface.
Here we see servant leadership from the Apostles. They did not ignore or dismiss the problem. Instead, they faced it head-on. They showed concern for the welfare of the Greek-speaking widows.
With godly discernment they gave the criteria to the solution – choose 7 men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, to be appointed to this important mercy ministry.
The Apostles knew where their priorities lay (preaching and prayer) and what sort of servant leaders should be handing the daily distribution of the Greek-speaking widows.
They got the whole community involved in the choosing of the 7. And v5 tells us that the whole church was pleased with the full solution.
Not just with the choosing of the 7 men but also the priority of the Apostles.
Of the 7 men, in the next few chapters, we will see more of Stephen and Philip. But I would like at this point to say a few words about Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus.
Nothing more is recorded of them. Yet, names of people mentioned in Scripture though quite anonymous to us, provides us the picture that everyone is significant in God’s sight. The majority of us will not be like Stephen or Philip.
We are actually like Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus.
In 10 years, some might still remember us. In 20 years, they may have heard of us. But in 50 years, Daniel who?
Man may forget, but God does not. Let me share 3 verses that spans the lifetime of a person -
Birth - Psalm 139:16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Life – Luke 12:7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Death – Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
One writer, expresses our significances well and I would like to quote him “The most important person in all history knows each of us intimately. Loves us intimately. Rules our lives for our good and His glory. No matter how we feel about ourselves and our contributions, God sees them, God remembers them, and, by His astounding grace, God uses them.
Church, let us take heart, that our Heavenly Father will remember all our contributions to the body here in Hermon.
As one Hermon@Henderson, let us continue then to uphold the prominence of preaching and prayer, while at the same time, complement it with loving practical care of our daily needs.
May we seek to prevent Satan driving a wedge amongst us by exploiting internal strife.
External Persecution (v8-15)
Luke says, Stephen is a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. He was chosen as one of the 7 to minister to the Greek-speaking widows.
From v8 to v15, we see that Stephen’s role developed to that of an Evangelist. His speech in chapter 7 which we will cover in 2 Sunday’s time is the longest recorded one in Acts.
We see in v8 that Stephen is described as having the same empowerment as the Apostles. He was full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people.
And as we have already learnt, the ability to do great wonders and signs is God’s way of authenticating that Stephen is a genuine disciple of Christ.
Again, we will see that Luke’s emphasis is more on Stephen’s proclamation of God’s truth than his miraculous deeds.
Now, since Stephen is so like the Apostles in their ministry, it is then no surprise that he is persecuted like the Apostles. May I offer 3 observations for our consideration.
Godly wisdom triumphs
Firstly, we see that the godly wisdom of Stephen trumps the religious elite. We don’t know about Stephen’s educational background. We know he was a Greek-speaking Jew, but likely he was not a religious elite like Apostle Paul.
We are told that though many ganged up against Stephen but they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. In v12, he was brought before the Elders and the scribes and because they could not compete with his wisdom they had to resort to false witnesses.
Acts 6:10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Luke 12:11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
The first readers would I’m sure recall the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 12. When you are called before the authorities to testify for Jesus, do not be afraid, rely on the Holy Spirit to empower you.
Can the experience of Stephen encourage us to trust in God’s wisdom in all circumstances? That it is sufficient for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. That the believer may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Like Master, like servant
There is a hymn which says – more like the master I would ever be, More of His meekness, more humility; More zeal to labor, more courage to be true, More consecration for work He bids me do.
Stephen’s experience in these verses is truly more like His master.
Stephen filled with the Spirit was preaching and teaching in the Greek-speaking synagogue and that resulted in him experiencing opposition.
Jesus experienced similar opposition, for Luke 20 records:
Lk 20:1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”
We then see that opposition intensifies. From v11 to 14, from just opposing Stephen in debates, they began to have a smear campaign against him. False witnesses were produced so as to charge him with blasphemy. And they pushed to put him on trial in the religious courts.
Luke records this same sequence happening to Jesus in chapter 22 & 23 of his first volume. One example is:
Luke 23:1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”
Stephen like his master faced opposition, character assassination and unjust trial.
In today’s climate where we are fully adverse towards pain and injustice of self. To experience the persecution of Jesus our master must surely be unthinkable. Yet the bible says, this is the path of discipleship.
The 12 Apostles were beaten, imprisoned and charged not to witness for Jesus. Here Stephen is going through something similar.
If we sweep through the OT and NT, we will find too, numerous cases of God’s people being persecuted for testifying for God.
What makes us think that today in the 21st century it would be any different?
Today, then if we seek as disciples, to be more like our master, let us then accept that opposition and even persecution comes with the territory.
Closer to God the brighter we shine
Ac 6:14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
The final verse of chapter 6 is a stark contrast to what has preceded. Stephen’s face is described to be like the face of an angel.
In the midst of persecution that is intensifying, Stephen’s demeanor is calm and angelic. This is I submit because Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is in such close relationship with God that he is exhibiting it.
Since there is an implied connection with Moses, we recall the incident in Exodus 34 where Moses’ face shone because he had been with God.
Ex 34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
The closer we are to God, the brighter we will shine for Him. And that brightness will be visible even in the midst of opposition and persecution.
As a man full of faith, Stephen radiated God’s presence and pointed others to Jesus, his Lord and Saviour. We too can radiate for Jesus when we stick closer and closer to Him.
Let me bring this sermon to a close. As a church, we will continue to face internal problems and external persecution. It’s how we respond that matters most.
May God help us to depend on the Holy Spirit to guide our priorities and to radiate God’s grace.
The week that began with Psalm Sunday, ended for our Lord at the cross at Calvary. Our crucified Lord now sends us to proclaim His victory over sin and death.
The hymn ‘So send I you’ has been labelled as one of the greatest missional hymns of the 20th century. May I read the first and last stanza for us all:
So send I you to labour unrewarded, To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown, To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing- So send I you to toil for Me alone.
So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred, To eyes made blind because they will not see, To spend, tho’ it be blood, to spend and spare not- So send I you to taste of Calvary.
This hymn that has blessed many, was written by Canadian school teacher, Margaret Clarkson. It was first published in 1954.
Margaret shared that teaching jobs were so scarce that she had to take her first job as a teacher in a lumber camp some 1400 miles from home, in northwestern Ontario. From there she moved to the gold mining camp of Kirkland Lake, 450 miles north of Toronto.
In all, she spent seven years in the north, experiencing loneliness of every kind; mental, cultural, but particularly spiritual, for in all of those seven years she never found real Christian fellowship.
Because of a physical disability she knew that she could never go to the mission field, but God seemed to tell her that this was her mission field, and this was where God had sent her.
So, one night while studying the bible and meditating on the loneliness of her situation, she read John 20:21, “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” Her meditating of this, led her to write the words to this hymn.
She was then twenty-three, in her third year of teaching.
This missional hymn of the 20th century continues the zeal of the Apostles, and the 7 men of Acts 6. The zeal to proclaim the name of Jesus with boldness and to sacrificially live out His grace as children of God’s kingdom.
May the Holy Spirit, transform our hearts to do likewise.