But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. – Acts 6:4 ESV
As the early church continued to grow in size, there were inevitable problems that came up. Acts chapter four describes a situation that arose between two different groups within the rapidly expanding church in Jerusalem. As a result of the events surrounding the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jews who had come from all over the known world to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost had come to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior. There were native Hebrews who spoke primarily Aramaic and were from the region of Palestine. But there were also Hellenistic Jews who were primarily Greek-speaking and from outside the land of Palestine. One group used the Hebrew Scriptures, while the other used the Greek translation, called the Septuagint. It seems that their main issue was a linguistic one that translated into a cultural conflict and ended up making its way into the early church. Even in those early days Satan was attempting to use division and dissension as a means to create disunity within the body of Christ.
While Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews had their own synagogues in Jerusalem, when they became believers in Christ, they ended up worshiping side by side. This inevitably led to some tension. Luke records that a dispute arose over the distribution of food to the widows within the church. The Hellenistic Jews were claiming that their widows were being neglected. This dispute led the twelve apostles, who made up the leadership of the local church, to appoint men to oversee the distribution of the food to ensure it was done fairly and equitably. Their reasoning for this decision was simple. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2 ESV). They were not diminishing the importance of the issue or demeaning the role of service, but were simply establishing priorities. In their minds, it was essential that they continue to spread the good news regarding Jesus Christ. That was the mandate given to them by Jesus Himself before He ascended back into heaven. So they chose “ seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV) to handle the issue of the distribution of food to the widows. This decision left them free to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.
It is interesting to note that the apostles saw their responsibility as two-fold. Jesus had made His instructions clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). But Jesus had also taught them how to pray. He had modeled for them in His earthly life the importance of prayer. His ministry had been marked by a careful balance between preaching and prayer. The apostles knew from watching His life, that Jesus lived a life of dependence upon the Father. As impressive as His miracles had been, the disciples didn’t ask Jesus to teach them to heal, they asked Him to teach them how to pray. They had been amazed at the intimacy of His prayer life with the Father. They were taken by His need for time alone with God and the power and guidance He seemed to receive from those moments alone in prayer. They had lived with Jesus for more than three years. They knew how hard He worked, how tired He became at the end of a long day. And they had seen Him spend entire nights in prayer, skipping the evening meal and missing out on much-needed sleep. Yet He met the new day with a renewed sense of commitment and a supernatural energy that they couldn’t explain. When Jesus had his encounter with the woman at the well, the disciples had returned with food and offered some to Him. But He said, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32 ESV). They were confused by His statement, wondering where He had gotten food to eat. But Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34 ESV). That statement of Jesus probably came to the minds of the disciples as they considered their responsibilities within the growing church. They had a job to do. They had been given a task to accomplish by Jesus and in order to do it, they were going to need to rely on prayer just as Jesus had done. Their accomplishments for God would be directly tied to the time they spent alone with Him. It is interesting to note that when the disciples went to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus, “they went up to the upper room, where they were staying” (Acts 1:13 ESV). And Luke tells us, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14 ESV). It was in that context that the Holy Spirit came.
Prayer must be an essential part of the ministry. Activity alone is not enough. Prayer is an act of reliance upon God. It conveys our need for Him. It communicates our dependence upon His power and our need for His direction. God doesn’t need us to do things for Him. He wants to do things for us and through us. He wants to unleash His power in our lives. But sometimes we get too busy to pray. Our self-confidence can turn into self-reliance, which can end up being self-destructive. Prayer reminds us that we need God to accomplish our God-given responsibilities. Jesus needed God. Jesus depended upon the Father. So why don’t we? The apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. They knew that one was not more important than the other. But they also knew that one was impossible without the other.