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Replay: Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

Posted by on Oct 20, 2012 in scripture, service | 12 comments

Replay: Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

Three years ago, I wrote a post called “Prayer and the Ministry of the Word.” Of course, that’s a phrase that comes from Acts 6, when the church was having a problem. Some of the widows (the Hellenistic widows) were not receiving food that they needed. So, they church brought the problem to the apostles, who gave them some counsel about who to choose to take care of this issue. (As a side note, it is interesting that the apostles left it up to the church to choose the people…) Why did they apostles not take care of this issue? Because they were busy with “prayer and the ministry of the word.” This phrase has been requisitioned by many church leaders as justification for spending many hours each week praying and studying Scripture in order to prepare sermons, homilies, and teachings. Is that a valid interpretation and application of that phrase?

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Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

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. 10-20-2012

    Very good post and a great reminder to us all. I appreciate the time you put into all of your posts

  2. 10-20-2012

    One of my favorite posts on a generally misunderstood and misused passage!

  3. 10-20-2012

    Thanks Alan for the insight!

    While, the ministry of the word surely involves consistent study of God’s word for a life time, it is indeed not for sermonizing. Having received the revelation from the Holy Spirit that the Torah spoke about Christ and their dispensation the apostles took it seriously. Everywhere they went, their preaching to the people, teaching and serving the churches remained consistent with the Torah. They had problems with the “custodians of the letter” because apostles majored not on the letter but its “reality and fulfillment” 2 Corinthians 3:6.

    The yardstick used for choosing those to “serve tables”, fits those who definitely know the Word of God well not just its letter. The term “serve tables”, indicates both speaking and action (interaction). As you rightly pointed out, at that “time or season” the apostles were not disposed to the action of distributing food and stuffs. But reading through Acts, we see the apostles eventually serving even nursing the sick and making promises to pay off debt of brothers who were once irresponsible.

    The truth is, studying His word doesn’t stop anyone visiting others, caring where needed, preaching, teaching and being regular at the gatherings of saints (not because they came to teach or see who to promote in rank in the church etc).

    Painfully, the problem remains our resolve not to truly discard our previous wrong understanding and practice of what the Church is. The Christians I know who study the Bible (not books and methods) the most, are serving the most while those studying to lead, are growing in servant-leadership (servants of God knows who; leading those who the Holy Spirit can’t).

    Presently, Jesus is opening the eyes of the blind daily and they’re singing and praising His glorious name! Everywhere, they’re daily replying custodians of the letter “whether this truth (Christ) is good or evil we don’t know” but this we once we were blind but now we see.

  4. 10-20-2012

    Jim and Arthur,

    Thank you very much!

    Pedro,

    Are you equating “ministry/service of the word” with “studying Scripture”? If so, I’d love to know why you decided to make that connection.

    -Alan

  5. 12-9-2012

    Thanks Alan for the question.

    My reply is coming late because I have only just seen your question today. Apologies!

    I am not at all equating “ministry/service of the word” with “studying Scripture”. However, without study of the word, I am not sure there will be any difference between just being humanitarian (pragmatic) from “serving or ministry” with the intent to point the served to Christ.

    What I meant was captured by the first sentence in my earlier comment in response to your article,which is “the ministry of the word surely INVOLVES consistent study of God’s word…” and “studying His word doesn’t stop anyone visiting others, caring where needed, preaching, teaching and being regular at the gatherings of saints”.

    Your site has been a blessing to our gathering.

    Shalom!

  6. 12-11-2012

    Pedro,

    Thanks for the reply. I think I worded my question badly. Let me ask it this way: Are you equating “the word” in Acts 6 with “Scripture”?

    -Alan

  7. 12-11-2012

    Thanks Alan.

    At the moment, I can’t see the difference between “the word” and “scripture” as used in Acts 6 except that the New Testament (fulfillment of the Torah) was actually being hatched in the person of Christ in their daily lives right then.

    I guess that the apostles wanted to mainly show this fulfillment by way of preaching and teaching while not neglecting its aspect that involved caring—especially for the poor.

    I introduced “study” simply because they couldn’t have done the work without studying the scripture (1 Timothy 4:13).

    If I’m out of skew, I will appreciate clearer insight.

    Shalom!

  8. 12-13-2012

    Pedro,

    Thanks again for replying. I think that “word of God” can include Scripture, but that “word of God” does not equal Scripture. As you pointed out in your comment, since the New Testament was not written yet, then “word of God” in Acts 6 cannot refer to Scripture as we use the term today. There are also several instances in the New Testament where the phrase “word of God” did not refer to Scripture. So, I’m still not exactly sure what “ministry/service of the word” means in this passage.

    -Alan

  9. 12-13-2012

    Thanks Bruv Alan.

    I agree with you that “the word of God” as used in Acts 6, was/is part of scripture being unfolded in its fuller reality at that time. And that the way we use the term “scriptures” today captures God’s revealed and sealed word in the sense of written document or canon.

    Out of wanting to learn, please what are the several instances in the New Testament where the phrase “word of God” did not refer to Scripture?

    Bruv, have you considered “WPtouch plugin” for your site. It makes reading on mobile phones easier.

    Shalom!

  10. 12-13-2012

    Pedro,

    Interestingly, I just wrote a post about one of those instances. I came across this while I was studying through Ephesians: And the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.”

    By the way, I do use the WPTouch plugin. I see the mobile version when I view my site with my phone.

    -Alan

  11. 12-14-2012

    Thanks Alan.

    I will read the article.

    Shalom

  12. 12-14-2012

    Pedro,

    Good. I look forward to reading your thoughts about it.

    -Alan