by Steven Chan
12 October 2008
When the early church began in Acts 2, about 3,000 souls were baptized (Acts 2:41) and then the number grew to 5,000 in Acts 4:4. According to Acts 5:14: “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women”; and the growth were due to the fact that “daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:42) Then the number of disciples went beyond mere additions, to the multiplication of disciples as recorded in Acts 6:1-5:
“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 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. 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.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude.”
When a church grows, there will be an increasing need to ensure that the physical needs of the brethren in the congregation are taken care of. But there is also a danger that pre-occupation in everyone being engaged exclusively in taking care of the needy such that the other important work of the church is neglected or suffers as a result. The apostles recognized the danger of being side-tracked by the physical needs of the church. They also recognized that “it is not desirable that the apostles should leave the word of God and serve tables”, i.e. to take care of the physical needs of the brethren. This is not to say that it was not important as the apostle John wrote thus in 1 John 3:17: “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
But they certainly felt that the preaching of the word should not be displaced or neglected or superseded by the serving of tables. Hence, they encouraged the congregation to choose appropriately qualified men to be in charge of that work so that the apostles could “give themselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word”.
As soon as they appointed the qualified men to take care of the physical needs of the congregation, the Bible recorded thus: “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). In other words, the successful resolution of the issue of some members of the congregation being neglected or overlooked in the daily distribution of food resulted in the next phase of explosive growth of the church – “the number of disciples multiplied greatly”.
As we consider the reason for the lack of growth in our congregation, we may do well to consider whether “the ministry of the word and prayer” have somehow been side-tracked or pushed aside by other distractions such as the physical requirements of the members of the church.
The church is first and foremost a fellowship of believers who are disciples or followers of Christ (Acts 2:42; 11:26). Believers are required to abide in the Truth (John 8:32; 15:-8). To the church is committed the great commission of teaching all nations the gospel and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19, 20). That work is what Jesus came to do (Luke 19:10) and it should never be neglected.
This marching order of spreading the Word of God to every man and woman in every nation cannot be supplanted by any other important work of the church. But how often have we experienced the sapping of the energy of many brethren in many physical needs of the church such that Prayer and the ministry of the Word are neglected in our personal lives.
We need to devote ourselves continually to the practice of prayer and the study, meditation and preaching of the Word. Prayer is the lifeline of the Christian – and we are therefore commanded to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17; James 4:2,3). Brethren, we need to pray more regularly and more fervently – for the prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16). We need also to feed on the Word of God daily so that we may grow thereby (Matt 4:4; Heb 5:12-14; 1 Pet 2:2).
Hence we need to find every opportunity to proclaim the good news of the truth about the love of God for man and the blessings of salvation that is available to all. We need to consciously plan to include the proclamation of the gospel in our daily lives. Otherwise, it would be crowded out by the many activities of our lives – and we would be unfruitful as the seed that is sown among thorns (Mark 4:18, 19).
As members of the body of Christ, we should also devote ourselves to serving the needs of one another: “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). We need to freely serve one another by encouraging and exhorting one another in words and in deeds.
What is God’s plan for the growth of the church? It is encapsulated by this description: “continual devotion to Prayer and the ministry of the Word, accompanied by serving tables” – doing first things first – proper balance in our work – and not promoting serving physical needs above the personal practice of prayer and the preaching of the Word. That was what the early church did: “daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). That’s the plan. The apostle Paul declared thus: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Rom 1:14-16). “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
Brethren, how active are we in sowing the Seed of the Word of God (Luke 8:11)? Do we pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17)? Do we continually consider one another to stir up one another unto further love and good works (Heb 10:24)?
In 1 Cor 3:6-9, the apostle Paul wrote thus: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers…” The sowing of the Seed through the preaching of the Word requires teamwork between all brethren and with God as our fellow worker. God’s Word is powerful and will accomplish its purpose: “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa 55:11).
So, let’s work together and encourage one another to pray, proclaim as well as practice benevolence towards all men especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). We will also do well to remember the words of the Lord who said: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). So let’s go forth with the Lord to sow the seed and then we will witness His blessings as He provides the growth. That’s the plan of God for the growth of His people as revealed in His Word. Our task is not to come up with a better plan; our duty is to carry out His plan faithfully – and He will give the increase.