Obstacle as Gospel Opportunity: Another Look at Widows and Table Waiters in Acts

There is something to be gained by reading the section in Acts 4.32-6.7 together. I propose that 4.32-35 is an entry into the section and that 6.1-7 both concludes the section even as it provides a hinge into the following section.

This segment begins in chapter four where “the apostles were giving testimony to the Lord Jesus” and there “was not a needy person among them.” Barnabas is an example of one who was in tune with the Spirit (4.36) while Ananias and Saphira remind us that was not true for everyone (5.1ff.). The generosity of some like Barnabas strengthened the assembly by helping those in need. Likewise, to support the widows is to strengthen the congregation in Jerusalem. It is a strong possibility that the need presented in chapter six is related to the need in chapter four. Indeed, as Barnabas is a specific example of one who gave, the widows are a specific example of those who are in need. It is not likely an accident that selling possessions to care for the needy is stated alongside giving testimony about Jesus (4.32-33). This provides an entry or the front porch into the rest of the section.

The episode with Ananias and Saphira provide examples of situations that could derail the gospel. Yet the church continues to grow not only by caring for others but by ministry of the word. It is worth mentioning that the apostles themselves were almost killed on account of teaching in the name of Jesus. It was Gamaliel, a Pharisee of some influence, who spoke on their behalf to the council and their lives were saved. This is yet another obstacle that could have hindered the spread of the gospel. Perhaps we are to hear the words “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6.4) as a response to the request from the council in 5.40 “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” Since the apostles obviously plan to continue the ministry of the word, it is a possibility they considered participation in suffering as part of their ministry.

When we finally arrive to 6.1-7, we find that the complaint of the widows resulted in the demonstration of both the ministry of caring for the needy and the ministry of the word of God. Both remain an important part of the narrative as the gospel continues to thrive and the church continues to grow.

I propose we can see the segment like this;

4.32-35 – An introduction to the joint ministries of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the gospel.

4.36-37 – An example of one from the Spirit filled congregation caring for the needy in the congregation.

5.1-11 – An example of a potential hindrance to the Spirit filled congregation as they care for the needy.

5.12-16 – An example of the apostles and their insistence to participate in the ministry of the word.

5.17-42 – An example of a potential hindrance to the apostles and their participation in the ministry of the word.

6.1-7 – A demonstration that both the ministry of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the word continue to bear fruit.

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Theology with Rough Edges

Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.

This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.