Prayer and the Ministry of the Word
Last week we finished up our summer series in the book of Proverbs, and today we kick-off our fall season together. Our main fall sermon series starts in two weeks and today’s sermon is a bit of an introduction to where we are going to be going together as a church in these next months.
And the big idea is that as we begin a new ministry season together, we want to pick up and carry the torch that we see the Apostles carrying in this passage. We want to devote ourselves as a church to prayer and the ministry of the word.
But to really understand what that means, we need to go back and review the situation in Acts 6 and see what the Apostles meant when they spoke these words. And then we’ll be able to talk about the three big ways that we are going to apply these words to ourselves.
So let’s remind ourselves of the situation in Acts chapter 6 again. From the day of Pentecost onwards, lots of people had been coming to Christ. If we add up the references in Acts up until this point (Acts 4:4, 5:14, 6:1), then the total number of disciples would have been well over 10,000.
They’re all together in Jerusalem, and many of them don’t have jobs. Especially groups like these Hellenist widows. They had travelled from around the world to Jerusalem for Pentecost and had stayed for this period of growth and discipleship with their new family of Christ-followers. And so those disciples from the area were selling their stuff and their property and sharing the proceeds with the rest so that they all could eat (Acts 2:45, 4:34).
Can you imagine for a moment the administrative structure required to handle all those finances coming in to the church, the purchasing or manufacturing of meals for 10,000 people every day, and then the distribution of that food to those 10,000 people spread out over the whole city of Jerusalem? Without computers?
It’s not hard to imagine that some people could get missed in all of that. And that’s what happened. This group of Greek-speaking widows were getting missed. Which means, they had no food to eat. And this complaint comes to the ears of the Apostles.
Now at that point, they have some options. They could just ignore this problem. “Sorry, we’re too busy. Church of 10,000 you know. Teach those widows to be content with what they have.” I’ve been around some leaders like that. Just like the priest and Levite in the story fo the Good Samaritan, they walk past real needs because their religious work is just so important.
Another option is that they fix this problem themselves. But just remember how big of a system this was, and how complicated and hands-on it would be to sort this out. And the Apostles know that if they’re doing that, then they’re not doing the specific job that Jesus gave them to fulfill.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus said to them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That’s variation on the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
That was the mission given to the Apostles by Jesus. They can’t just stop doing that. But they also can’t neglect these real needs present in the church. So they come up with a solution, which we read about in verses 2-4. “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’” (Acts 6:2–4).
Now what I want us to notice here is three principles or truths that come out of the Apostle’s words here.
1. They Established Priorities
The first principle we should see is that the Apostles established priorities. They understood that as Apostles, as eyewitnesses to Christ, they had a specific role to play in the mission of God, and that role had to do with teaching and preaching the word.
Caring for people’s physical needs was a consequence of that mission. After all, Jesus said to teach people to obey all that He commanded, and one of the things He commanded was to love our neighbours as ourselves. So these Hellenist widows needed to be taken care of.
But the Apostles understood that this need could not displace the priority of preaching the gospel and making disciples. And so they figured out a way to make sure that the need could be met without neglecting the specific mission that Christ had given His church to fulfill.
There’s a whole sermon in here on the relationship between social action and the preaching of the gospel. Throughout history there’s often been a tug-of-war between preaching the gospel and meeting people’s physical needs—between the Great Commission and the Great Commandments. And this passage teaches us some important truths about not neglecting either.
2. Their Mission was the Word
That leads us into the second principle or truth we need to notice here, which is that the Apostle’s mission had to do with the word. Their mission was the word. We see them use that word “word” in verse 2:
“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” And in verse 4: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Is that word “word” interesting to you? Jesus had told them to be His witnesses, to make disciples and teach them to obey all that He had commanded them. And here they are talking about preaching and ministering the word.
Is this something different? Are they drifting from the mission Jesus gave them? Have they given up the mission just to teach the Bible to people who are already Christians? The answer is no.
I say that because first of all, in the book of Acts, this phrase “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” is used to refer to the message of the gospel as spoken by the apostles.
When Peter preached at Pentecost, Acts 2:41 says “those who received his word were baptized.” When Peter and John preached in the temple later on, it says that “many of those who had heard the word believed” (Acts 4:4).
So when they talk about “preaching the word” and the “ministry of the word” here in chapter 6, they’re talking about the gospel—the message about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and our response to that message of repentance and faith.
And yet, if we hear that phrase “word of God” and think about the Bible, we’re perhaps not that far off. Because if you read through Acts, you’ll see that the Apostle’s teaching is all soaked in Scripture. So much of way they preached the gospel was by preaching the Bible and showing how Jesus was the fulfillment of those ancient promises.
The Apostles had finally understood what Jesus had said back in Luke 24:44-47: “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”
The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament Scripture, was all about Jesus. He had been the main character all along. And so there was not a big division between preaching the gospel and preaching the Bible.
The Apostle Paul understood this. In 1 Corinthians 15, when he says “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you.” And what is that gospel? “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3–5).
For years I would read about Jesus on the road to Emmaus, explaining the Bible to those two disciples and showing how He was the centre of it all. And I wished that that sermon could have been recorded for us. I wished I could hear Jesus explain how the Bible is all about Him.
And only recently I’ve come to understand that we find in the book of Acts. Jesus’ Apostles, His messengers speaking for Him, do exactly this in Acts 2 and 3 and 4 and beyond.
As you and I think about this phrase “the word,” the association between the Bible and the message of the gospel is even closer for us. Because we have the New Testament. This is the Apostolic deposit, received by the church as the authoritative Word of God and preserved for us today.
All of this helps us understand that when the Apostles talked about “the word,” they were talking about the mission. Their mission was to declare all of Christ from all of Scripture, and as we’ll see in a few minutes, this is our mission as well.
3. Their Mission Required Prayer
The third principle we need to notice here in Acts 6 is that the church’s mission required prayer. Did you notice how prayer came up in verse 4? Verse 2 talked about preaching the word of God, and yet verse 4 says, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
I’ll admit that this verse bothered me for many years. It kind of sounded like “You guys take care of feeding the widows, because we’re too busy over here praying.” And I kind of just imagined that they were spending hours each day in personal mystical prayer while everybody else was out doing the hard jobs like hauling food to 10,000 people.
I think I struggled with this because my understanding of prayer had been influenced too much by some revival preachers and “Deeper Life” conferences that all sounded really spiritual, but actually ended up being quite a bit different from from what we see in Scripture.
Over the past 10 years or so, my struggles with understanding prayer have really made a turn as I’ve come to understood more about prayer from the Bible, and have seen how closely prayer is associated with the mission of God.
You may remember I spoke a couple of years ago in the “You Are Here” series about the first time we see prayer in the Bible. Genesis 4:26: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” The background here is that God had promised that an offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.
They thought that Cain would be that offspring, except that he crushed his brother and not the serpent. Then they hoped it might be Seth, and it wasn’t. All he did was have another son. And so that’s the point that people begin to pray—calling upon the Lord to keep His promises and advance His program.
And if we keep looking at prayer throughout the Bible, we see that prayer follows this same pattern. Prayer is not about asking God to do what we’d like Him to do. And it’s certainly not about having extended mystical experiences. Prayer is about calling upon the name of the Lord to advance His program by keeping His promises.
And that’s what we see in the book of Acts. People praying in response to God’s promises for the mission to go forward. In Acts 1:8 Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, and in acts 1:14 we see them respond to this promise by gathering to pray. And out of this prayer time comes Matthias, the next Apostle.
When Peter stood up to discuss the matter of a new Apostle, nobody said “Whoah, Peter, we’re kind of having a prayer meeting here.” Making plans and appointing leaders was a natural thin in that context because it was all about the mission.
One of the next great examples of this comes in Acts 4. Peter and John had been arrested for preaching the gospel, and they were told to never preach Jesus again. And what does verse 23 tell us? “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,” (Acts 4:23–24).
And the rest of chapter 4 there shows us what that apostolic praying looked like. If you’ll read it you’ll see it was soaked in Scripture, fuelled by the promises of God, and focused on the mission. Just listen to how the prayer concludes: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29–30).
That was their one request. “Lord help us keep preaching your word with boldness, and keep doing what only you can as you fulfill your mission to draw people to Jesus.” And that’s the kind of praying that the Apostles are talking about here in chapter 6. Not hours in mystical contemplation, but Bible-soaked, promise-fuelled, mission-focused prayer that is woven all around their work of preaching the gospel.
Because that’s what prayer is. That’s what prayer is and what prayer is for, according to the Bible. Prayer is our response to the promises of God as we ask Him to do what only He can do as we partner with Him on His mission to glorify His son on the earth.
So don’t picture the Apostles sitting on soft couches floating along in mystical prayer for hours each day while other guys went out and did the dirty work. Picture them instead on their way out the door to go preach in the temple again in the presence of the very people who murdered their leader Jesus not that long ago. And so they’re on their knees, hearts beating, sweat on their foreheads, reminding God of what He promised to do and begging Him to give them boldness as they go to proclaim Christ again.
And I guarantee you that their praying did not end there in that room. I guarantee you that as Peter was preaching in Acts 2 or Acts 4, John and James and Matthias and Bartholomew were standing back there praying, saying things like “Lord, you promised to exalt your son. Lord, you promised to bless the nations. Lord, help Peter over there keep speaking this truth. Lord, give him boldness. Don’t let him be afraid of those Pharisees over there. Lord, help us do what you asked us to do.”
Bible-soaked, promise-fuelled, mission-focused prayer went hand-in-hand with the proclaiming of the word. That’s why Acts 6:2 talks about preaching the word, and yet Acts 6:4 talks about prayer and the ministry of the word. You couldn’t have one without the other. Prayer went hand-in-glove with the ministry of the word for those Spirit-filled Apostles as they trusted in God’s promises and boldly fulfilled their mission in those dangerous and wonderful days.
What About EBC?
So what is the message here this morning for Emmanuel Baptist Church? What does it look like for us to shape our ministry off of these apostolic patterns? I want to suggest three main take-aways for us today we a church as we begin this new ministry year together.
The first take-away has to do with this division of labour between the apostles and those appointed to serve tables. This division of labour reflected later on in the New Testament in the twin offices of elder and deacon. As we studied last year in 1 Timothy, elders or overseers or pastors are those who provide spiritual leadership to the church, who are responsible for teaching the word to the church, and who oversee the church like a father oversees his household.
Deacons are those who support the work of the elders by serving and administrating the practical needs of the church as the church fulfills its mission. One illustration I’ve heard is that if the church is a bus, the elders are those who make sure the bus is going in the right direction at the right speed, and the deacons are those who are making sure that the tank has enough gas in it and the tires are properly filled with air.
You may know that after at least a decade and a half of thinking and talking about this matter, we here at EBC are in the process here of transitioning to this elder/deacon leadership model. We’re hoping that by our next congregational meeting in November we’ll have a draft of our new bylaws to share with the membership. That will be an important step forward as we seek to model our church leadership after this apostolic pattern.
2) The Word
The second take-away for us as a church has to do with the preaching of the word. As we begin a new ministry year together, I want us to call us to commit ourselves anew to this apostolic pattern of preaching the whole Christ from the whole Bible.
I want us to feel the burden of Paul who said to the Ephesian elders, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). I want us to feel the glory of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture is useful to us as a church. We don’t skip over anything or leave the challenging parts out or just preach our favourite parts. Like the Apostles, we must teach the whole truth about the whole Christ from the whole Bible, because it’s all God’s word and it’s all profitable.
How do exactly do this well has been a major question for me in recent months. It’s been my intention for some time to preach from the gospel of Matthew. I so want us to encounter Jesus in that way as we follow along with Matthew’s eyewitness biography of Him. I think that would be a very important journey for us as a church.
But to really preach through Matthew at a pace that allows us to really hear what he’s saying would take us three years or so, at least. Don’t choke at that—I know of one well-known pastor who took fourteen years to do Matthew. Three years is not extreme.
But here’s my concern. In those three years that we’d be in Matthew, what else from God’s word would we not be hearing? What else might we be missing? What other ways might we not be growing in that time?
This problem is perhaps more pronounced if we think about preaching through a book like Numbers or Ezekiel. I plan to preach through Numbers and Ezekiel some day, and why shouldn’t I? All Scripture—including Numbers and Ezekiel—is breathed out by God and profitable for us.
But in the time it would take us to work through Numbers or Ezekiel, what might we not be hearing? What would it be like for the life of our church to only hear from those books for an extended period of time?
At issue here is the matter of a balanced diet. Just like our body needs water and carbohydrates and protein and fat and several vitamins and minerals in order to stay healthy, so I would suggest we will be healthiest as a church when we are regularly feasting on the whole Bible, eating a balanced diet from all of Scripture.
With these questions on my mind, I picked up a book this spring called “The Whole Counsel of God.” It was written by some veteran pastors designed to help pastors preach the whole Bible to their congregations in a faithful and balanced way. What they encouraged pastors to do was preach equally from all of the major sections of Scripture over a reasonable time period like one or two or three years.
And the way you do that is by taking the bigger books and breaking them down into their smaller sections and building sermon series around those natural divisions. The gospel of Matthew, for example, has five major sections. The book of Genesis has six.
So instead of preaching the whole book all at once, we can do a series on one of those divisions, and then move on to another part of the Bible. This approach will allow us to give the church a balanced diet from all of God’s word over a given time period.
I found these suggestions very compelling, and in talking with the other men on the board, we decided to give it a try. So we already started this summer, preaching a series on Proverbs 1-8. Beginning on September 27, we’re going to begin a series in Matthew chapters 1-7, which will take us up to the beginning of April. After that, we’ll spend two and a half months or so in Genesis 1-5. The plan after that is to spend time in Jonah and then the Psalms.
Next year, we’d plan to preach through an epistle like 2 Timothy, and one of the books of the former prophets, such as 1 Samuel. Then the next year we might find ourselves back in Matthew, picking up in chapter 8 and working through the next section. Then it would be back to Genesis 6 and the story of Noah, and on we would go in the years to come, enjoying a balanced diet from the whole counsel of God.
So we want to try this out and see how it goes and figure out along the way how best to do this. But let’s be clear what this is about. This is not about us just checking the box that says “we didn’t skip that part of the Bible.” Rather, it’s about us taking seriously the Great Commission. Jesus commanded us to disciple people to Himself, teaching them to obey all that He has commanded us. Jesus gave pastors and teachers to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12) and we do that by teaching the sufficient word that is able to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
So this is all about the mission. It’s about us standing in line with the Apostles, devoting ourselves to the ministry of the word as we proclaim the whole Christ from the whole Bible. We have one more stop to make next week in Romans 14 before we dive into Matthew, and I can’t wait.
There’s a third big takeaway from this passage for us, which has to do with prayer. We’ve seen that prayer was mega-important to the Apostles. If we read the Bible we’ll see that prayer has always been mega-important to the people of God in all time as they’ve asked God to keep His promises and advance His mission.
Over a decade ago this church went through a vision renewal process, and one of the statements coming out of that process was that this would be a church of prayer. That’s a good statement, but only if we never forget what prayer is about and what prayer is for. If we lose sight of the mission, then saying we want to be a "church of prayer” is like a general saying that he wants his army to be an “army of marching.”
Do armies march? Of course they do. Marching is really important. But it’s important because of their greater purpose to fight battles and win wars. If you forget about that, then marching is going to feel hard and uncomfortable and pointless.
Similarly, I would suggest that if you have no zeal for prayer in your life, it’s probably because you have very little zeal for the mission of God. And what you need to focus on first may not even be be prayer itself, but the Great Commission and the part that God wants each one of us to play in it. Because as you wake up to that reality, you’ll be aware of how dependant we are upon God, and how His promises are our only hope, and prayer will be your natural response.
And for us as a church, the more we understand our place in the mission of God, then prayer will be a vital and a necessary and an essential part in what we do. We will be devoted to prayer in the ministry of the word, calling on the name of the Lord together with Bible-soaked, promise-fuelled and mission-focused prayers, not just because we know we should because the enormity in the greatness of the mission requires it.
And in line with this, over the last few months the leadership here has been thinking about how we can continue to strengthen the prayer life of this church. How we can continue to grow in our practice of prayer for the sake of the mission.
And so this fall we are going to try out something new. We are planning to begin a monthly prayer service on the first Sunday evening of each month. We want this gathering to be accessible to as many people as possible, so we plan to begin at 5:00 pm and have it last just over an hour.
In this prayer service, we’ll sing a couple of songs and hear a short teaching on prayer, and be guided through Bible-soaked prayers for our church family, our neighbourhood, and the mission of God here and around the world. Our focus in this time will be our identity as disciples and the advance of the gospel, asking for God’s help as we play our part together in His mission.
Our desire and prayer is that this service becomes a vital part of our life together as a church. We want it to be the kind of thing that people don’t want to miss. And so so I encourage you to come on October 4. You don’t have to be scared. Especially in these first few months, the people who pray publicly will be asked ahead of time so they can prepare. We’re not going to put anyone on the spot. And so on behalf of the leadership of this church, I encourage you to mark down October 4 at 5pm and come ready to join with your brothers and sisters as we seek to devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.
Today: By Faith
As we begin this new year and ministry season together, it’s vitally important that we remember our mission. It’s perhaps even more important to remember that it’s not so much that the church has a mission, but rather that the God of mission has a church.
God has a mission to bless the nations through His son, Jesus Christ. And this God has a church which He has sent for this mission. We are a part of that church. And prayer and the ministry of the word are foundational to our work in fulfilling that mission.
We have a part to play in this mission together. In our gatherings together week by week. In our small groups, where we pray and minister the word to one another. In all of the many conversations with one another and with those who don’t know Christ yet. In Outpour weekend, when we team up to love our community together.
We all have a part to play in this mission as individuals as well. What is the part that God has given you in the mission? What’s before you this week? What are the relationships, the decisions, the good works that God has prepared for you this week? What part will prayer and the word of God play in your life this week? Will we each leave here this morning walking by faith in the God of promise, asking Him to keep His promises as we trust and obey Him?
I hope your answer is “yes.” Let’s pray and then sing in response to all this.