There were divisions among the Jews who had converted. Some came from a Hebraic background: they were born and raised in the area of Palestine, they studied and spoke Hebrew, and they very conservatively followed the teachings of the Torah. Others were Grecian Jews: not necessarily from Greece, they were Greek-speaking, they studied Greek philosophers and were people of the world who were not as concerned with the centralization of Judaism in Jerusalem. There was already a division between these two groups before they became Christians. They found common ground in Christ, but even when we are in the body of Christ some of our old divisions and prejudices may remain for a time. Here we have some inequality going on in the daily ministry to the widows and it is causing further division.
The complaint comes before the apostles, and they gather everyone together. We know from previous accounts that the early church was made up of more than 5,000 people. There are simply too many people for them to do it all. They can’t preach the gospel, teach the new converts the things Jesus had taught them, and look after the physical needs of every person in the group. It is not that the job of distributing food to the widows is unimportant or unspiritual, it is simply that they can’t do it all. They were the ones who had known Jesus, heard him teach and preach, they were the ones who could pass that on to others. So, they prioritize teaching and preaching over distributing food. They asked the people to choose spirit-filled men to take on the ministry of caring for the widows. The people chose amongst their own number and everyone got a chance to participate in the process. The Apostles told them to pick men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. We get too caught up sometimes in finding people who are “qualified” when all we really need is someone filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Just about everything else can be learned, but in the church the two most important qualifiers are the same today that they were then: Holy Spirit, and wisdom.
They chose seven men, and instead of just putting them out there to work, they laid hands on them and commissioned them for ministry. They took time to recognize that even in feeding widows, the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit was necessary. Even in the job of caring for the physical needs of people, God is still the source of the ministry. When we recognize this fundamental truth, it gives God room to work in phenomenal ways.
As a result of clearing up this potential divisive issue in a way that glorified God and met the needs of the people, three things happened. 1. The word of God spread. The Apostles were freed up to do the work that only they could do. They were free to preach the gospel and make new disciples. As a result of that freedom, 2. the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly. And in fact as a result of the caring for widows, the preaching of the gospel, and the increase in the number of disciples, 3. there were a large number of priests who became obedient to the faith.
The priests have been watching. They have been seeing these people gathering daily in the temple courts. They are hearing the gospel preached. They are seeing people’s lives change. They are part of the hearings where these men are forbidden to preach, and they see them continue with a boldness that is inexplicable. All of these things working together with a concern for caring for the needs of widows make an impression on even the highest and holiest.
We distinguish too much between what we think are ministry positions in a hierarchy. We put Pastor or Missionary or Superintendent on top, then all the other ministries and way at the bottom of the list would be Coffee and Cool-aid Hosts. If we want to know where our mindset is regarding a hierarchy of ministry positions all we need to do is ask the question: When was the last time we prayed over our people serving as ushers, greeters, and coffee hosts? When was the last time we prayed for wisdom as we served in those capacities? We think they are easy jobs, things we can do without God’s help. The truth is that everything we do in service to the Lord needs his power behind it to make a difference.
Stephen was distributing food. He was doing miraculous signs and wonders among the people. He was unbeatable in an argument about Jesus, and he was distributing food. Stephen is a perfect example of someone who was serving in a capacity that we think of as second rate, but it put him in a position to leave a powerful testimony. The men who were serving in the ministry to widows were interacting with the priests and there was a sharp contrast between those priests who accepted this gospel with joy and those who rejected it even more strongly. In the face of that kind of opposition, these men in food service had to be strong in the faith and rooted in the Holy Spirit's power.
Each of us must prioritize the things which God has uniquely gifted us for. And don’t feel bad if you don’t know what that is yet. I am not sure Stephen would have pegged himself as the food distribution kind of guy before that day. But God had a particular reason for wanting him in that place. He had to be seeking God to know what His plan was for Stephen's service. Every ministry, every service we offer to God matters in a big way even if what we do seems small. Distributing food to widows does not seem to be on the front lines in the excitement, but God used those men to feed people that could very well have starved otherwise. And the main man in food service was about to become the first martyr.
It doesn’t matter if you are teaching, preaching, cleaning, ushering, greeting, changing overheads, or serving Cool-aid, if you are offering your service to the Lord in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading, he will use it to build his kingdom.