the weblog of Alan Knox

Prayer and the ministry of the word

Posted by on Oct 20, 2009 in scripture, service | 12 comments

Acts 6 begins like this:

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 to 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. (Acts 6:1-7 ESV)

Elders (pastors) sometimes apply this passage to themselves, arguing that elders should focus on “preaching the word of God” or “prayer and the ministry of the word.” In this line of thinking, the elders should spend their time praying, studying, and preaching, while other people in the church carry out the other activities (such as waiting tables or caring for widows).

Now, to begin with, I think believers often have a wrong understanding of what it means to “preach the word of God.” As I’ve suggested in other posts (i.e. my series “Preaching in the Old Testament“), “preach the word” does not mean “give a sermon”, but to proclaim or announce the Gospel. Similarly, I’m not convinced that “the ministry of the word” means studying the Bible and commentaries and other books for 20+ hours per week in order to prepare a sermon.

However, beyond these points, I think there are at least two reasons why it is not valid for elders to apply this passage to themselves and their own responsibilities.

First, elders are not mentioned in this passage. Luke only mentions apostles. There is no indication in Scripture that the responsibilities of apostles are to be assumed by elders.

Second, and perhaps more important, the apostles seemed to have devoted themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” for a limited amount of time. In other words, even the apostles did not continue this same type of devotion of time forever.

Within a short time, we see evidence in Scripture that the apostles were soon moving about from place to place. For example, Peter is traveling “from here to there” (Acts 9:32) and eventually spent some time in Joppa (Acts 9:36-10:22) and Caesarea (Acts 10:23-48) before returning to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2).

We know that Paul traveled throughout his work as an apostle. Also, when he wrote to the church in Corinth, he indicated that it was normal for apostles to travel (1 Corinthians 9:1-5). Paul also indicates that Peter has been in Corinth at some point (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul tells us that his work as an apostles included serving people diligently (1 Thessalonians 2:7-10 among others).

(According to tradition, all of the apostles traveled to different places in order to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to strengthen the churches.)

So, whatever it meant for the apostles to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word”, it seems to have been a short-term devotion. Soon, they were no longer spending all of their time on this activity, but were traveling around proclaiming the gospel and serving people – the very thing they said that they did not have time to do in Acts 6.

Perhaps, the apostles recognized that there was a specific thing for them to do at that time. Instead of allowing other people’s responsibilities from hindering them, they exhorted the people to take care of their own responsibilities. In fact, this is exactly what they told those who were complaining: take care of this yourselves.

When this particular project was complete (whatever it was), the apostles continued with whatever God called them to do next. For most of the apostles, this seems to be traveling from place to place to proclaim the gospel and strengthen the churches.

This passage is not an exhortation for elders (pastors) to spend many hours praying and studying Scripture. Instead, this passage is an exhortation for all believers to not be distracted from whatever God has called us to do… even if that responsibility eventually ends and God then calls us to do something else.


12 Comments

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  1. 10-20-2009

    Thanks, again, for blogging, Alan.

  2. 10-20-2009

    Excellent summary. Unless you are claiming an apostolic office, you can’t use Acts 6 as an exuse to spend all week in your office.

  3. 10-20-2009

    Alan, this is a great post!

  4. 10-20-2009

    Interesting to link elders with pastors, although maybe you did this for the context and for clarity.

    It makes very good sense that apostles would spend a period of time being fed on and building their understanding of the word, praying and seeking God’s will before moving out into the sent part of their ministry. While we’re not exactly given a detailed record, I’d expect that for all of them there would be periods when they fed/prayed, periods of mobile ministry and periods when they build the local church up, rinse and repeat.

  5. 10-20-2009

    Interesting that Acts 6 records the apostles devoting themselves to preaching the word of God at a time that no new covenant scriptures had been written. Vs. 7. “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”.-gives us strong evidence that the preaching of the word of God spoken of in Acts 6 is the proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection/the gospel of Christ.

  6. 10-20-2009

    The only reason the Apostles didn’t use a pulpit and didn’t preach hour long monoluges was because they were lacking in their understanding. As soon as the Church got smart enough we did what was supposed to be there all along.

  7. 10-20-2009

    “There is no indication in Scripture that the responsibilities of apostles are to be assumed by elders.”

    It seems Apostles also functioned as elders: 1 Peter 5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder……

    Part of the responsibilities of Apostles seemed to be that of an elder and hence elders assumed some responsibilities of Apostles.

    Traveling around and preaching the Gospel was the ministry of the Word. This is still the very thing they said they should do. They were Apostles (send ones) so this was at the very core of what Jesus told them to do. I don’t see the limited time they did a certain thing and after that they did something else. I also do not see that they didn’t serve at tables before but later they did. Maybe you (Alan) can explain a bit further how you see this change in their ministry?

  8. 10-21-2009

    Thanks Lionel – that made me laugh out loud.

  9. 10-21-2009

    Wonderful post Alan.
    I enjoyed it so very much.

  10. 9-27-2011

    What if the ministry of the word, is the ministry of Christ? Could they have been devoted to administering the Living Christ into people?

  11. 6-28-2012

    Actually, I’d like to suggest that the seven men chosen represents the emergence of elders. They were selected by their peers based on their reputation and walk. They were to oversee the ministry of the saints–there were far more Hellenist widows on the scene than seven men could directly serve meals every day.

    “look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” The apostles asked to know who the people already were recognizing among them.

    Paul selected Timothy in Acts 16:2,3 because Timothy was “well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.”

    Paul, Titus and Timothy left planted churches–believers sprung forth from the seed of the gospel–with no one yet recognized as elders. No one could yet have emerged with the communities recognition from experience and walk as yet. When they return, 6-18 months later, elders are recognized.

  12. 6-28-2012

    Art,

    I think you may be right about Acts 6 pointing to the recognition of the first “elders” among the church.

    -Alan