The Most Shocking Convert Ever

Imagine Osama Bin Laden becoming a Christian and asking to speak in Christian churches. Imagine Adolph Hitler converting to Judaism and asking to speak in Jewish synagogues. Imagine the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan becoming an advocate of civil rights and asking to speak to gatherings of Jews and blacks. Do you think such conversions might be met with skepticism? Do you think some of those churches, synagogues, and gatherings might say, “No way, you’re not coming here.” Well, allow me to introduce you to Saul of Tarsus.

My previous post provided the scriptural evidence that Saul was the leader of the persecution against the church of Jerusalem. So I won’t rehash all those verses. Suffice is to say that the name “Saul of Tarsus” was on the lips of every Christian who lived in Jerusalem at that time. He was a terror.

Let me clear, though. There was nothing fake or hypocritical about the man’s zeal for God. Saul was 1000% real. What you saw was what you got, no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas. Actually, it was the sincerity of his dedication to God that fueled his intense hatred of the followers of Jesus. Saul believed to the depths of his soul that Jesus was a false Messiah and that the God-ordained Jewish religion, Judaism, had to be protected and preserved against this new religion that so many were calling “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).

Let me ask you something. What’s the difference between a saintly reformer that history praises and an evil terrorist that history condemns? In many ways there isn’t much difference except for the fact that one fights for what turns out to be the truth and the other fights for what he believes to be the truth but turns out to be a lie. Do you see what I mean? I’m not defending Saul’s persecution of Christians. I’m just trying to help you understand it correctly.

But something happened to Saul, something that got him to rethinking everything he had been raised and trained to believe was true. That something was the death of Stephen. Saul was an eyewitness to that brutal stoning. He even stood guard over the coats and outer garments the members of the Sanhedrin took off in order to carry out the stoning (Acts 7:58).

When the stoning began, Saul was in full support of it. No doubt he thought, “Yeah, get him.” Maybe he even mocked a bit when Stephen cried out just prior to the stoning, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). Did Saul even bother to look? If he did, he saw nothing.

And so the stoning was carried out, and Stephen breathed his last. He said two things, however, just before he died. First, he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Second, with his dying breath, he said, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).

Saul heard both of those statements, and they resonated with him. No matter how wrong he thought Stephen was about Jesus, he had to admit that Stephen’s faith was genuine. A dying man just doesn’t call upon a Savior he secretly knows to be a sham. Something else a dying man, one being executed, doesn’t do is ask God to cut his executioners a break in regards to judgment. And yet that’s exactly what Stephen did.

The days, weeks, and months that followed Stephen’s death saw Saul become the embodiment of persecution against the Jerusalem church (Acts 8:3). Even when that persecution caused many of the church members to flee the city and relocate to other places, Saul hunted them down and brought them back to Jerusalem to be tried by the Sanhedrin. He was relentless. Years later, as he retold the story of that part of his life, he used graphic language to describe his behavior. Take the time to read what he says and hear the religious rage that drove him:

“Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” (Acts 26:9-11, N.K.J.V.)

Saul was on one of these hunts one day as he made his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, a trip of about 140 miles. He was carrying with him official letters, signed by the Jewish High Priest, written to the synagogue leaders of Damascus. Those papers gave him the right to arrest any man or woman who were members of “the Way” and bring them back to Jerusalem to be tried and put to death (Acts 9:1-2).

Saul and his group were just outside Damascus when suddenly an exceedingly bright light burst down upon them (Acts 9:3). Saul would later describe it as “brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me” (Acts 26:13). The light was so overpowering that it knocked each man to the ground (Acts 26:14). Then came a voice saying in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The men who were with Saul heard the voice, but they laid there speechless. For one thing, even if they did know Hebrew, they weren’t Saul. For another, they weren’t about to carry on a conversation with a bright light.

As for Saul, he managed to reply, “Who are You, Lord?” (Acts 26:15). Perhaps the fact that he addressed the speaker as “Lord” is a tip-off that he knew, deep down, the speaker was God. Whatever Paul did or didn’t suspect about the voice, Jesus quickly removed all doubt about His identity by saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 26:15). By the way, don’t miss that. Isn’t it wonderful to know that Jesus takes it personally when His followers are persecuted? From His viewpoint, the persecution is being done to Him every bit as much (if not more so) than it is to His follower. Take heart in that, Christian, the next time you find yourself being persecuted for your Christianity.

But the part of Saul’s conversation with Jesus that I really want to emphasize are those words: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” A goad (“prick” K.J.V.) was a prodding device by which a farmer would poke an animal to either get the animal moving or get it to change course. This is where we get the phrase, “He goaded me into doing that.” A goad could be as simple as a slender piece of wood that was blunt on the handle end and sharp on the prodding end. Sometimes when an animal was stuck with a goad, the animal would respond by kicking back against the device. The animal soon discovered, though, that kicking back only drove the goad further into its flesh and caused more pain.

So, what was Jesus trying to goad Saul into doing? What course change was He trying to get him to make? The answer is obvious. He wanted Saul to stop persecuting the church and accept Him as Messiah/Savior. To that end, it seems clear from Christ’s words that Saul had inwardly been under conviction to make that change for some time prior to that day.

But what were the “goads” that Jesus had been using to create that conviction in Saul? First, surely Saul had heard the reports of Christ’s ministry. Perhaps Saul had even personally seen Jesus teach, perform a miracle, cleanse the temple, or die. Based upon the fact that by Saul’s own admission he cast votes in favor of Christians being put to death (Acts 26:10-11), some scholars believe that he was a member of the Sanhedrin council that had tried Jesus and relentlessly pushed the Romans to crucify Him. Even if Saul wasn’t a full-fledged member of the Sanhedrin, he was certainly closely associated with the group and as such would have had intimate knowledge of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and purported resurrection.

Second, there’s no doubt that Jesus had been sticking Saul over and over again with the goad of Stephen’s death. It can’t be a coincidence that the Bible’s first mention of Saul places him guarding the clothing during Stephen’s stoning. Watching Stephen die that horrific death affected Saul. Even the defense that Stephen so eloquently provided for himself before he was stoned had to have resonated with Saul. After all, Saul himself was a scholar, an expert in the history of Israel, and Stephen’s defense was all about that history.

Because of these goads of conviction, by the time Jesus supernaturally appears to Saul on the Damascus road Saul is ripe for conversion. Trembling, Saul asks, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” That’s the question of a man who has stopped kicking at the goads. Jesus then instructs him to go into the city of Damascus (Acts 9:6). As Saul rises from the ground to carry out those marching orders he realizes that he has been struck blind. What a scene it must have been to see the great Saul of Tarsus, the most feared man in all the land if you were a follower of Jesus, being humbly led by the hand by some of his companions into Damascus (Acts 9:8).

For three days Saul remained in darkness (Acts 9:9). He didn’t eat anything. He didn’t drink anything. Then a man named Ananias, a follower of Jesus, showed up at the house where Saul was staying. Jesus had sent Ananias there to heal Saul’s blindness. Ananias laid his hands upon Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17, N.K.J.V.).

As soon as Ananias mouthed those words, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his sight was restored (Acts 9:18). Saul was then promptly baptized and given food, after which he stayed several days with some of Christ’s followers there in Damascus (Acts 9:18-19). To the astonishment of all, Saul even preached Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:20-22).

Those first sermons there in those Damascus synagogues were merely the initial sparks of the roaring blaze that Saul’s ministry would become. Beginning with Acts 13:9, he will no longer be called “Saul.” Instead, he will be known as “Paul.” Even though that name means “little,” Paul’s ministry would be anything but that. He would become recognized as an apostle. He would perform miracles. He would write half the New Testament. He would embark upon three missionary journeys by which he would take the gospel to the Gentiles, win untold numbers to Jesus, found churches, ordain pastors, instruct Christians, and become the man that many refer to as the greatest Christian who ever lived. All this came from the greatest persecutor the early church knew.

In closing, let me say that Saul’s conversion proves beyond all doubt that Jesus can reach anybody, even the person who seems the most unreachable. Christ has all kinds of goads that He can use to melt even the hardest heart. Because of this we should never classify any lost person as being beyond hope. If Jesus could convert Saul of Tarsus, he can convert anybody. And when He gets all of that passion, fervor, emotion, and zeal turned around and working for Him, then look out. That’s how an apostle Paul is born.

Posted in Brokenness, Change, Church, Conviction, Evangelism, God's Work, Ministry, Missions, Persecution, Salvation, Service, The Gospel, Witnessing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How God Brought Good Out of Persecution

It takes quite a bit of time and energy for a mob to literally stone someone to death. Coats and outer garments must be taken off so that rocks can be gathered and thrown most effectively. But what should be done with the coats and garments to keep them from getting stolen during the proceedings? The best solution is to lay them all in one big pile and appoint a person to watch over them. Well, guess who guarded the clothes pile during the stoning of Stephen. It was a zealous young Jewish Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus who had trained under the tutelage of the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 7:58; Acts 22:3, 20; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:3-6). This Saul would ultimately become better known as the apostle Paul.

The stoning of Stephen marked a turning point in the Jewish persecution of the church of Jerusalem. Acts 8:1 says: “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem…” (N.K.J.V.). And do you know who took the lead role in that intensified persecution? Young Saul of Tarsus. His life was so intensely invested in Judaism that he could only see the followers of Christ as blasphemers who preached lies about a false Messiah and sought to corrupt the one true religion that God Himself had instituted. He hated the followers of Jesus with a passion and stood by in full approval (watching the clothes) as his acquaintances in the Sanhedrin council stoned Stephen to death. Read carefully the following verses, which all speak of Saul’s rage-filled hatred of the followers of Christ (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  • Acts 8:3: As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
  • Acts 22:4: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women…”
  • Galatians 1:13: For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
  • Acts 9:1-2: Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
  • Acts 22:5: “as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from which I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.”

We might question why God would allow Saul and his fellow Jews to persecute the Jerusalem church this severely. But the answer is found in Acts 8:1 and Acts 8:4. Those two verses say (N.K.J.V.):

  • Acts 8:1: Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
  • Acts 8:4: Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.

You see, Christianity couldn’t become a worldwide movement as long as all the Christians were stationed in one city, Jerusalem. As wonderful and as idyllic as the church of Jerusalem was, God wanted churches here, there, and everywhere, not just one big megachurch in one big city. What was the great commission that Jesus had left His followers? “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19, N.K.J.V.). Likewise, what had been Christ’s departing words to that group of approximately 120 of His followers? “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, N.K.J,V.).

It had always been God’s plan for the Christians of Jerusalem to start branching out by winning people to Christ in every city and in so doing start churches in those cities. Human nature being what it is, though, people tend to remain entrenched where they are comfortable. That includes Christians. But do you know what is a surefire way to upset a comfort zone? Let the comfortable start experiencing intense persecution. That will put a lot of “For Sale” signs in yards. In this way, the persecution against the Jerusalem church accomplished something that allowed the early church as a whole to go to a new and more prolific level. It put the followers of Christ on the move, and wherever they went they took the gospel.

You might recall, though, that I closed my previous post by saying that the persecution against the Jerusalem church accomplished two things that allowed the early church to go another level. So, if many of the Jerusalem Christians fleeing town and relocating to other cities and regions was one thing, what was the other? It was the introduction of Saul of Tarsus into the storyline of the early church. That, too, will prove to be a game changer. First, though, God has to get Saul converted. And that conversion will be the subject of my next post. I’ll just tease it a bit by saying that watching Stephen’s stoning had much more of an impact on Saul than even he realized at the time. Actually, it created the small crack of a fault line in his thinking, one from which he wouldn’t be able to recover. But that’s all I’ll say for now. See you next time.

Posted in Adversity, Church, Contentment, Evangelism, God's Sovereignty, God's Work, Ministry, Missions, Persecution, Problems, The Gospel, Trials, Witnessing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Church’s First Martyr

I take no pleasure in reporting that much of what a lot of Christians believe about God really doesn’t stand up to the test of scripture. “God wouldn’t let me remain sick.” Tell that to Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:19). “God wouldn’t let me be poor.” Tell that to the Christians of Smyrna (Revelation 2:9). “God wouldn’t let Satan have his way with me for years.” Tell that to the woman who remained stooped over for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17). “God wouldn’t let me lose a child.” Tell that to David (2 Samuel 12:15-23) and Job (Job 1:18-19). “God wouldn’t let me be physically harmed for serving Him.” Tell that to Abel (Genesis 4:1-8) and John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12).

This brings us to the story of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. We first meet him in Acts 6:1-7 as he is chosen to be one of the seven men assigned the responsibility of the Jerusalem church’s daily distribution to its widows. Really, if that was the man’s sole claim to fame it would be enough to classify him as a tremendous servant of the Lord. But Stephen’s resume doesn’t stop there.

In Acts 6:8, we’re told that he was “full of faith and power” (N.K.J.V.) and that he did “great wonders and signs among the people” (N.K.J.V.). That means that the indwelling Holy Spirit had gifted him with the spiritual gift of the working of miracles (1 Corinthians 12:29). In addition to this, Stephen was also a great Christian debater. Acts 6:10 says that a group of unbelieving intellectuals “were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (N.K.J.V.).

However, as happens so many times with outstanding servants of the Lord, Satan aimed his sights at Stephen. He did so by leading that group of unbelieving intellectuals, who were embarrassed because they couldn’t discredit Stephen in a fair debate, to secretly provoke certain men to accuse Stephen of blasphemy against God and Jewish law (Acts 6:11-12). This led to Stephen being seized and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that served as the Supreme Court of all things Jewish (Acts 6:12).

Not surprisingly, the corruption that had previously marked Jesus’ trial before these same men also marked Stephen’s. As had been done to Jesus (Matthew 26:37-61), false witnesses were employed to say that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against the law and the Jewish temple (Acts 6:13). These false witnesses even used the same quote from Jesus that had been used against Him in His trial:

“for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:14, N.K.J.V.)

This set the stage for Stephen’s defense of himself, which amounted to a retelling of Israel’s history beginning with God’s call to Abraham and ending with Solomon building the Jewish temple, which was the pinnacle of that history (Acts 7:1-50). Following this defense, Stephen held nothing back in offering his assessment of those members of the Sanhedrin. He said:

“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53, N.K.J.V.)

Stiff-necked? Uncircumcised (at least in heart and ears)? People who always resisted the Holy Spirit? Descendants of persecutors of prophets? Murderers of the Messiah of whom those prophets had foretold? People who didn’t keep the Mosaic law? Wow! Tell us what you really think of the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen. No Jewish person, and I mean NO Jewish person, dared talk to those men like that.

Therefore, it’s not a bit surprising that those men flew into a blind rage and “gnashed at him with their teeth” (N.K.J.V.). In other words, they ground their teeth together. It was at this point that Stephen looked up and was granted the privilege of being able to literally see into heaven. There he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:55). Was Jesus standing in honor of Stephen’s courage or was He standing to receive Stephen’s soon-to-be disembodied soul into heaven? I like to think it was both.

Stephen exclaimed, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56, N.K.J.V.). Evidently that vision of heaven was for Stephen’s eyes only because the members of the Sanhedrin couldn’t see it. Their response to Stephen’s exclamation was to cry out loudly, put their hands over their ears so they didn’t have to listen to him anymore, and rush toward him (Acts 7:57).

Once they had laid their hands upon him, they unceremoniously bum rushed him out of Jerusalem, picked up stones, and stoned him to death (Acts 7:58). With his dying words Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59) and, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). Those statements were virtually identical to two statements Jesus had made while hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34, N.K.J.V.) and “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46, N.K.J.V.) And with that the church had its first martyr.

Even though death by stoning was the Mosaic law’s sentence for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), the fact was that the Israel of Stephen’s day was no longer a nation in and of itself. It was merely one little slice of the vast Roman empire. As such the Jewish Sanhedrin could not officially put anyone to death. They had to get Rome’s permission for that. This, of course, was why they had been forced to get Pontius Pilate on board regarding the death of Jesus.

So why did the members of the Sanhedrin stone Stephen without first asking permission from the Romans? Well, does the term “mob violence” mean anything to you? You see, Stephen’s death wasn’t the result of the Sanhedrin working in an official capacity through official channels. It was, instead, a gang of angry men who were royally ticked off at what Stephen had said about them. If Acts chapter 7 was part of an old Western movie, Stephen’s death would have been a lynching rather than a stoning.

No doubt the illegal nature of the death only made the shockwaves from it even greater. Even though this wasn’t the first time the Jerusalem church had experienced persecution, the persecution had never resulted in death. For example, Peter and John had been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, but the two apostles had gotten off unscathed (Acts 4:22). All twelve of the apostles had later been arrested by a group of Sadducees and thrown into prison, but an angel had opened the prison doors and led them to freedom (Acts 5:17-21). Those apostles had been rearrested shortly afterward and brought again before the Sanhedrin, but that trial had resulted in them merely being beaten and commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:22-42).

It was Stephen’s death that took the persecution against the church to a whole new level. Now the gloves were off.  The last verse of Acts chapter 7 closes with Stephen dying, and the first verse of Acts chapter 8 says that at that time “a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem” (N.K.J.V.).  Don’t miss the connection between those two happenings.

But would you believe that God would use the heightened level of persecution against the Jerusalem church to accomplish not one but two things necessary in order for the early church as a whole to go a new and more prolific level? In my next post I’ll identify what those two things were. So until then I’ll ask you to stay tuned. And in the meantime just know that even when God either causes or allows a “bad” thing to happen, He always has a multilayered plan to bring tremendous good out of it. We just have to be patient until we can see the full unfolding of that plan.

Posted in Adversity, Christ's Death, Church, Death, Faithfulness, God's Will, God's Work, Heaven, Ministry, Obedience, Persecution, Perseverance, Problems, Service, Sickness, Sin, Suffering, The Old Testament Law, Trials | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Acts 6:1-7 the First Deacon Election?

The first serious problem that threatened to split the early church of Jerusalem centered around what Acts 6:1 calls “the daily distribution” (N.K.J.V.). No definition is given for what this distribution was, but the apostles described it as serving tables (Acts 6:2). Based upon this description, two possible definitions have been offered.

First, the tables could have been stations where the church’s widows went each day to either receive an allotment of food or receive an allotment of money from the church treasury to use to buy food. It is perhaps significant that the Greek word that is used for “tables” in Acts 6:2 is the same Greek word that is used in reference to the money-exchange tables that Jesus turned over as part of His two attempts to rid the temple complex of commerce and greed (John 2:13-22; Matthew 21:12-13).

Second, the tables could have been the sit-down variety where the church’s widows were served meals each day. This definition seems to be the one more commonly held. Several translations (N.A.S.V., N.I.V., N.L.T., N.R.S.V.)  even add in the words “of food” to the term “the daily distribution.”

Whichever definition of the tables is correct, what isn’t in doubt is the fact that the Hellenist Jewish Christians (who spoke Greek) thought their widows were getting shafted in the allotted amount. Depending upon how we understand the tables, the Hellenists either believed their widows were getting a lesser amount of money to purchase food or a lesser amount of food than the Hebrew Jewish Christians (who spoke Aramaic). The disagreement eventually reached a boiling point that led the Hellenists to complain to the apostles.

The apostles, in response, didn’t take over the distribution themselves. They didn’t ask for volunteers to do the job, either. What they did was instruct the church to choose seven worthy men from the membership ranks. These men would become the “table servers” who would be delegated the responsibility of overseeing the daily distribution.

This plan of action pleased the church members, and seven men were chosen. The men were: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas (Acts 6:5). Since all seven names are Greek names it’s possible that all seven men were from the Hellenist group. Whether or not this was the case, God must have been pleased with their selection because following the election the word of God spread even more and the church’s numbers swelled yet again. At this point the new converts even included many of the Jewish priests (Acts 6:7).

So, there’s no question that the Acts 6:1-7 election was a great thing that produced marvelous results. But was it the first deacon election of the church age? Many solid students of the Bible believe that it was and that the seven men became officially recognized deacons for life. However, other equally solid students understand the election to be a one-off type of deal. They see the election as being akin to a temporary committee being elected to serve for a limited time to achieve a stated goal (e.g., a committee to organize a convention, a singing, a revival, a Homecoming, etc.).

Having studied this subject quite a bit, I understand how people can reach either conclusion. Therefore, it’s not my intention to use this post to praise one interpretation and bash the other. Instead, I’m simply going to list the evidences that can be used to support each interpretation and let you, the reader, form your own opinion. I will, however, close the post by offering my take on the question.

I’ll begin by listing the evidences that support the interpretation that Acts 6:1-7 is not describing the first election of deacons. The evidences are as follows:

  1. While the actual words “deacon” and “deacons” are used in our English translations of the New Testament (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, and 13), neither word is used in Acts 6:1-7.
  2. The qualifications (“of good reputation” and “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”) stated for the Acts 6:1-7 men are not the same as Paul’s list of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Not only is the 1 Timothy list much more extensive, it doesn’t even include “of good reputation” and “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” One might think that if Paul is describing the same office as Acts 6:1-7, God would have inspired him to provide a direct tie-in to the Acts passage by somehow restating those two descriptive qualifications.
  3. The New Testament uses the titles “elder,” “pastor,” “bishop,” “shepherd,” and “overseer” interchangeably to describe the office most commonly referred to nowadays as “pastor” in the local church. However, as of Acts 6:1-7 that office hadn’t been officially established in the church age. Yes, the apostles were playing that role in the colossal Jerusalem church, but they were still referred to as “apostles.” The office of pastor (elder, bishop, shepherd, overseer) isn’t mentioned until Acts 14:23, which tells us that Paul and Silas appointed (“ordained” K.J.V.) elders in every church. This raises the legitimate question, “In light of the fact that the pastor is the God-appointed shepherd of the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Peter 5:1-4) would the office of deacon be formally instituted in the church age before the office of pastor?”
  4. Even though two of the seven men, Stephen and Philip, are mentioned prominently in subsequent stories (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-60; 8:4-13; 8:26-40; 21:1-14), neither man is ever described by way of the title “deacon.” For example, in Acts 21:8, as part of a story that takes places many years after Acts 6:1-7, Philip is specifically described as “the evangelist” and as “one of the seven.” He is not described as “the deacon.”

Now let me move on and list the evidences that support the interpretation that Acts 6:1-7 is describing the first election of deacons:

  1. Paul, in his writings, does not hesitate to include the office of deacon as part of each local church (Philippians 1:1). He even provides a list of qualifications for the candidate for the role (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The question becomes then, “If the office of deacon did not begin in Acts 6:1-7 when exactly did it begin?” It seems strange that the New Testament wouldn’t even mention the beginning of the office. For example, the beginning of the office of pastor (elder, bishop, shepherd, overseer) is recorded in Acts 14:23.
  2. Even though the words “deacon” and “deacons” aren’t actually used in Acts 6:1-7, variations of diakonos, the Greek noun from which we get the word “deacon,” are found in three places in the passage. The word “distribution” in verse 1 translates diakonia. The word “serve” in verse 2 translates diakonein. The word “ministry” in verse 4 translates diakonia.
  3. In regards to the Acts 6:1-7 qualifications not matching up with the 1 Timothy 3:8-13 qualifications for deacons, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two passages aren’t describing the same office. As evidence of this, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are clearly describing the same office — the word “bishop” is used in both passages — and yet those two lists of qualifications, though similar, aren’t exactly the same.
  4. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, and diakonos literally means “servant.” Obviously, the seven men elected in Acts 6:1-7 did become servants as they served the tables of the Jerusalem church’s daily distribution.

Well, as you can see, there is a pretty solid case to be made for either answer to the question, “Is Acts 6:1-7 the first deacon election?” As for me, I tend to think that it was. For one thing, it’s hard for me to believe that the New Testament would assume the office of deacon in the church without giving us an account of the office’s origin. For another, everything about what those seven men did speaks to deaconship (servanthood).

However, I would like to point out one last thing about this whole subject. Even if we accept the premise that those seven men were the church’s first deacons, it should be noted that the Jerusalem church didn’t hold a deacon election until the church had upwards of 20,000 members. Contrast this with the fact that many small churches today, with memberships less than 200, try to have seven deacons! You see, if Acts 6:1-7 really is talking about deacons, then it should teach us that two things about them. #1: God-approved deacons are scarce. And #2: It doesn’t take many God-approved deacons to get the job done in a local church, no matter how big that church might be.

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A Pastor’s Main Job

What do you do when one section of members from your church claims that another section is showing favoritism towards their own when it comes to church benevolence? If you are the 12 apostles — with Matthias taking the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26) — and if your church is the church at Jerusalem, you hold the first church vote to appoint a group of men to fix the problem.

Please allow me, though, to draw your attention to the motivation the apostles gave for holding that vote. Faced with the option of taking over the church’s benevolence ministry themselves, they deemed that option unproductive. Rather than take the attitude, “If you want something done right you’ve got to do it yourself,” they chose to delegate. And what was their reason for doing so? We find it in Acts 6:2:

Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” (N.K.J.V.)

I wish that churches knew this verse as well as they know John 3:16. You see, those apostles were, for all intents and purposes, the pastoral team of the church at Jerusalem, and as such they understood that a pastor’s primary job is to study God’s word, preach God’s word, and teach God’s word. (For the record, in Acts 6:4 they also equate prayer with the task.)

So, are pastors too good or too aloof to serve tables, mow the church yard, mop the floor of the fellowship hall, change the light bulbs in the sanctuary, order the church literature, and visit every sick person within a 100-mile range? Hardly. After all, Jesus calls every Christian (and that includes every pastor) to exhibit the same humility that He exhibited when He washed the feet of the apostles (John 13:1-17).

No, the issue is not spiritual superiority. It is much more practical than that. It’s all about the church making the best use of its resources. Basically, while other church members can perform most tasks just as effectively, if not more so, than the pastor, what those other members can’t do as effectively as him is teach the word of God.

Sadly, so many pastors today spend so much time attending committee meetings or running up and down the roads doing this, that, and the other thing for their churches that they don’t have adequate time to study the word of God so they can properly feed it to their flocks. This is especially true in smallish churches where the pastor is “chief cook and bottle washer.” For example, I once had a man tell me that he believed that I, as the pastor of the community’s local church, was responsible for the spiritual well being of that entire community. That included all my church members who lived in the community, but it also included not only all the lost people of the community but also all the people in the community who attended other churches. I thought to myself, “Man, that’s a high standard you’ve got there. I guess it’s handy for you that you are not a pastor.”

The fact of the matter is that it takes time — serious time — and effort — serious effort — to really learn the word of God so that you can rightly divide it and dole it out to others (2 Timothy 2:15). It’s no wonder that 1 Timothy 5:17 says that the “elders” (a title the New Testament uses interchangeably for “pastors”) who labor in the word and doctrine should be counted worthy of double honor. That’s another verse that I wish churches knew as well as they know John 3:16.

In the end, the apostles handled the Jerusalem church’s benevolence dispute by presiding over the election of a worthy group of men who would be granted oversight over the matter. In my next post, I’ll address the question of whether or not this was the first election of deacons. For now, though, let me stick with the primary subject of this post. Those apostles said:

“Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4, N.K.J.V.)

Notice that just as the apostles began their decision with a word about their main job (“It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables”), they ended it with a similar word (“but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word”). It’s obvious that the apostles, the pastoral team of the Jerusalem church, wanted to drive home the point to their church members. They wanted those members to understand that the call to the ministry is the call to the study of the word and the call to prayer. Really, we might say that whatever else a pastor is doing, if he is neglecting these things, he is failing in his calling. Even though many Christians — and dare I say, some pastors — don’t see it this way, this is exactly what the Bible teaches.

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The First Church Fight

The world’s first church, the church of Jerusalem, was colossal in terms of sheer numbers. Acts 4:4 puts the number of men at 5,000. If we assume there was one woman per man, that’s 10,000 members. If we assume there was one woman and one child per man, that’s 15,000 members. Furthermore, both Acts 5:14 and Acts 6:1 speak of multitudes of men and women being added to the fold even after that. So, I feel safe in saying that the church consisted of at least 20,000 people, perhaps considerably more.

In a church that size, internal conflict is inevitable. Somebody is going to get mad at somebody else over something. And that’s what happened. The church members classified under the heading “Hellenists” (“Grecians” K.J.V.) brought a formal accusation to church leadership (the 12 apostles) against the church members classified under the heading “Hebrews” (Acts 6:1). Keep in mind, though, that both of these groups were Jews. The Gentiles wouldn’t be ushered into the church age until a bit later (Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-48).

The “Hellenists” were the “out-of-town” Jews. They were Jews who had grown up outside the land of Israel. They spoke Greek in addition to whatever specific languages each of their local regions used. They had been raised in Greek culture. They used the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Because they had spent their lives living among the Gentiles, they weren’t particularly obsessed with keeping the Mosaic law. These were the foreign Jews who had made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem to observe the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:5), had heard that group of approximately 120 of Christ’s followers speaking in their foreign languages (Acts 2:6-12), had responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:37-39), and had become part of the Jerusalem church’s original 3,000 members (Acts 2:41).

Their counterparts in the church were the “Hebrews.” These were the “home folk” Jews. They were Jews who had grown up in Israel. They spoke Aramaic. They had been raised in Jewish culture. They used the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament. Their lives were dominated by keeping the Mosaic law. Many of them had been living in Jerusalem on that famous day of Pentecost and still had homes there (Acts 2:46). Others of them had made the trip to Jerusalem from their homes in either the northern part of the country or the southern part of it and had become part of the church.

Church members from different homelands? From different backgrounds? Speaking different languages? Using different translations of the Bible? Placing a different level of importance upon the Old Testament law? Let’s admit that any one of these things has serious potential to destroy church unity. Frankly, we have to marvel that the church of Jerusalem made it without a church fight as long as it did!

But what was the fight about anyway? What was the charge the Hellenist Jews brought before the apostles concerning the Hebrew Jews? Well, it had to do with that communal system of support by which the church functioned (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). Human nature being what it is, you just had to figure that the good will that was required for such a system to function smoothly would eventually start to take on some water.

The Hellenist church members accused the Hebrew church members of neglecting the Hellenist widows in regards to the daily distribution of food. Since the church had made it this far without this charge arising, obviously the Hellenist widows were receiving some food each day. The problem must have been that they weren’t receiving as much food as the Hebrew widows. (At least that was the opinion of the Hellenists.) And was the complaint legitimate? The Bible doesn’t tell us. My guess is there was at least some truth in the accusation. After all, favoritism can crop up so easily, especially in situations where the group lines of contrast are drawn so clearly.

Regardless of whether or not the accusation was true, the apostles had to render a verdict. A serious charge had been made and it couldn’t be ignored. So, how will they decide? What course of action will they settle upon? The previous time a problem had arisen within the church, the offending parties had both been struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). Will this new problem result in more deaths? That answer will be the subject of my next post. So until then, stay tuned….

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The First Church Scandal

I don’t care how smoothly a church is humming along, it isn’t immune from scandal. The problem is that people can’t help but be people. They are sin-marred individuals who are card-carrying members of a sin-married race. Sin is in our d.n.a. It’s who we are. We are sinners by birth and by choice. Our fault line goes all the way back to the garden of Eden.

You might be saying, “But what about God the Holy Spirit dwelling inside Christians? Doesn’t He help us with our sin problem?” Yes, He does, but His help is tempered. His presence inside our bodies doesn’t vaporize our inborn nature of sin. Instead, His presence creates a civil war inside us. On the one hand, we feel the Adamic nature’s pull toward sin. On the other hand, we feel the indwelling Spirit’s pull toward godliness.

Back and forth the tug of war goes. Sometimes we allow the indwelling Spirit’s pull to win the moment. Other times we allow the Adamic nature’s pull to win it. Sometimes we act in a godly manner. Other times we act in an ungodly one. Sometime we choose God’s will. Other times we choose our own. I don’t think anybody ever described this inner civil war better than the apostle Paul, who was a pretty fair Christian himself. He wrote:

I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things. (Romans 7:15-17, N.L.T.)

This brings us to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple who were members in good standing of the church of Jerusalem. If they were wolves in sheep’s clothing, lost people masquerading as Christians, the Bible gives no indication of it. Still, though, even though they were born-again Christians who each were indwelt with God the Holy Spirit, they succumbed to the temptation to sin. And their sin created the first church scandal.

The problem centered around that unique financial setup that was one of the distinguishing marks of the early church in Jerusalem. All the church members sold their possessions and goods and contributed the proceeds to the church treasury so that the needs of each member could be met out of that communal fund (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Mind you that participating in this plan was voluntary. The apostles didn’t force the church members to do anything, and they didn’t excommunicate any member who wouldn’t go along with the plan.

Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land, and Ananias brought some of the proceeds and laid it at the feet of the apostles as a contribution to the church fund (Acts 5:1-2). Notice, however, that I said he brought some of the proceeds from the sale, not all of the proceeds from the sale. That was the problem.

But don’t get confused. It wasn’t sin for the couple to keep back part of the proceeds for themselves. Again, everything about the church receiving contributions was voluntary. So what was the couple’s sin? It was pretending (lying) that the money that Ananias brought to the apostles was all the proceeds from the sale. The transgression wasn’t money mismanagement; it was lying. It wasn’t a lack of giving; it was a lack of integrity.

Peter was the apostle who called out Ananias for the sin. Somehow, someway, Peter knew what Ananias had done. Maybe Peter had heard from someone just how much the couple had made from the sale. Or maybe the indwelling Holy Spirit imparted to Peter the spiritual discernment to know that Ananias was trying to pull something. Whatever the case was, as soon as Ananias laid the money at the feet of the apostles, Peter began his interrogation:

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4, N.K.J.V.)

If Ananias had answers to Peter’s questions, he never got to voice them. The very next verse says that when Ananias heard these things he dropped dead on the spot. His death was quickly followed by some men wrapping him up in a sheet or a blanket, carrying him out, and burying him. No funeral. No flowers. No visitation. Since his wife, Sapphira, wasn’t present at the time, she didn’t even know she was now a widow.

Three hours passed before she herself came to the apostles, and she still wasn’t aware of what had transpired. Peter, not knowing whether or not she was in cahoots with her husband concerning the sin, asked her, “Was this the price that you received for your land?” “Yes,” she said. That was all the evidence Peter needed to include her in the judgment. Acts 5:9-10 is quite graphic:

Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. (N.K.J.V.)

You talk about setting a tone for the Jerusalem church! You talk about raising the bar for standards! You talk about throwing a scare into all the members! It’s no wonder that Acts 5:11 says:

So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (N.K.J.V.)

Needless to say, down through church history God hasn’t enforced this same standard for Christian behavior in church. What if lying, scheming, pretending to be something you’re not, and trying to play big shot in church were still causes for immediate death in our congregations? If they were our church rolls would be a lot smaller and our church cemeteries would be a lot larger. You can bank on that.

In the end, what the story of Ananias and Sapphira shows us is that sin can arise even in the best of churches. Not every pastor who has an affair with the church secretary is lost. Not every deacon who gets caught for a d.u.i. is a charlatan. Not every church treasurer who steals from the church was always lurking in reeds, waiting for just the right chance to run off with the money. Not every youth minister whose addiction to pornography gets found out is a sham whose calling to the ministry is a farce. Sometimes genuine Christians seriously drop the ball and exhibit behavior that is shockingly worldly. That doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell inside them. It just means that He doesn’t win every battle of the civil war.

Posted in Addiction, Adultery, Alcohol, Backsliding, Church, Deacons, God's Judgment, Holiness, Hypocrisy, Ministry, Money, Pastors, Personal Holiness, Sin, Temptation, The Depravity of Man, The Holy Spirit | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment