Lesson Focus: In the beginning, even the early church struggled with how to best fulfill the mission God had given them.
Catching up on the story: The early church is beginning to grow and spread throughout Judea. The Holy Spirit has enabled the followers of Jesus to do miraculous things. Additionally, the Spirit has radically reorganized how these believers live life. We are told, on more than one occasion (Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37), that these new believers share with the whole community of faith all of their possessions. Believers are giving sacrificially, without expecting anything in return, so that everyone might be taken care of.
We learn in chapter 5, however, that life in the new church is not always perfect. In addition to the persecution that the church is beginning to suffer at the hand of the Jewish leadership, there are some internal malfunctions as well. The Ananias and Sapphira story shows that life in the new church is not always smooth. Despite the work of the Spirit in the new church, dishonesty and strife have crept in.
The Text: After some of the apostles had been flogged for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, the scene shifts back to the inner life of this new church. Despite the persecution, the church continues to grow, and when there is growth there is always growing pains. As the number of individuals who come into this new fellowship grows so does the number of people who need assistance. Remember that the church, from the very beginning, took care of those within their community who were in need. There were some Hellenists (see Important Terms), who were Greek speaking Jews, who were in need of food and found themselves neglected by the church as it distributed food.
This neglect, in all likelihood, was not intentional. Rather, the leadership of this new church was all Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews. As humans, we all have the tendency to look after those who are most like us first while we tend to forget those who might differ from us in some way. Living in Jerusalem and Judea were Jews who had moved there from other places. They were Jews by birth but were raised outside of Israel. Therefore, they spoke Greek. Greek was the common language of the world at the time. It was, if you will, the language of international business and commerce.
It was not uncommon for Jews living in other lands to move to Jerusalem as they approached death so that they might die in the holy city. Their widows were left vulnerable without means of family or friends to take the place of their dead husband in providing for them. As those Greek-speaking Jews were converted it fell to the newly established church to care for their widows.
The problem is brought to the attention of the “the twelve” (Acts 6:2) or the disciples, as the guiding group of leaders. The twelve act to rectify the problem, seeing that it was not right that the Greek-speaking widows be neglected. The twelve declare that there should be a division of duties. The disciples should not be the ones overseeing the distribution of food. To do so would keep them from fulfilling their call to proclaim the Word of God.
Important Terms: Hellenist: Greek-speaking Jew in contrast to one who speaks a Semitic language, i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. The Greek speaking Jews were basically Jewish in culture and religion, but they had adopted certain customs typical of the larger Greco-Roman world in which many of them lived. This inevitably resulted in certain suspicions and misunderstandings.
Hebrew: A Jew who spoke Hebrew as opposed to Greek or another language. At this time in history, Jews had been spread throughout the known world. Some would have been raised as ethnic Jews but would have also learned the language and culture of the area in which they were born.
Widow: A woman whose husband has died. The reason for making special mention of widows in this passage in Acts is perhaps that the community was openly trying to practice the statutes of Deuteronomy in favor of widows. Various Jews of the diaspora (Jews living outside of Israel) came to live in Jerusalem in their old age, and in many cases these placed their possessions at the disposal of the congregation (Acts 2:45; 4:32, 34). When they died many of them left widows behind and there would have been no provision for these without the organized care of the church, since they had no relatives there. If the complaint of the Hellenists (see above) that their widows were neglected was justified, this was perhaps related to the fact that care for widows in the primitive community was in the hands of the local Jews who, as tension developed between the Hebrew group and the diaspora element in the church, looked after Hellenistic widows more negligently than Jewish widows.
So What? To answer a question regarding which is the greatest commandment Jesus responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) What Jesus holds together in this commandment, indeed what the entirety of the Old Testament holds together, is that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparably connected. One simply cannot love God without showing love to one’s neighbor in a tangible way. The early church, in our passage, was confronted with the problem of providing adequate care for some of their widows. One of the things that could have happened is that the early church could have focused all its attention on loving its neighbor, providing care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, while neglecting proclaiming the good news of Jesus. They could have overly focused on loving their neighbor. Or, the early church could have insisted that the greater work was that of teaching and preaching while neglecting the poor and marginalized.
The early church does neither of these things. Rather, through wise decision-making, the leaders of the early church choose to structure themselves so that they might fulfill both parts of God’s command to love him and our neighbors. They chose godly men who would lead the church in caring for their neighbors, their widows, so that those who had been called and gifted to teach and preach could do so. We are called to do the same thing. We are called to love God and love our neighbor. We are called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ until he returns. And we are called to seek out the widow, the orphan and the stranger so that we might provide for them, in Jesus’ name. We cannot love God if we are not properly teaching, preaching and raising up disciples within our community. We cannot love God if we are not spending our time and resources on caring for those in need. We love God best when, as a body of believers who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, we find an appropriate balance between proclaiming the Word of God and caring for the poor.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why do you think the Hellenist’s widows were being neglected while the Jewish ones were not? In what ways might we overlook certain needs?
In verse 2 the twelve say, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Do you think the twelve thought that serving food was beneath them? If so, why? If not, why?
Why do you think the twelve let the “whole community” choose the seven men who would oversee the distribution of food to the widows?
In our passage today, how does the twelve’s solution help the church fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love God and neighbor?
How can laypeople make sure that their pastors are able to focus on the central tasks of praying and serving the Word? How can pastors make sure that laypeople are given opportunities to demonstrate their gifts?
Ways to Love God and Others…
Examine yourself. What are the gifts that God has given you?
Are you comfortable in front of a group of people? Do you like reading and learning? You could help lead a Devotion Group.
Are you good at organizing? How can you use your organization skills to help the church care for the poor in our community?
Do you like to work with your hands? Are you skilled at fixing things? How might you use those skills to help others?
Perhaps God has blessed you finically. How might you give back to God the gifts he has given you?
Do you like to see children smile and learn about God? You might like to help with VBS.
Do you love to hear people’s stories? You could visit one of our shut-ins who are unable to make it to church.
WORKS CITED: Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–).
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).