Church leaders inevitably face deep issues affecting the well-being of their congregations. At these difficult moments, mature, thoughtful, and prescient leadership is needed. In a crisis, leaders can make decisions that, while giving immediate relief, actually initiate a course of events that may ultimately lead to catastrophic consequences.
The first New Testament church in Jerusalem provides an outstanding example of thoughtful, biblical leadership that solved an urgent problem without causing a greater one. More helpfully, the decisions made in Jerusalem highlight the foundational “lifelines” of prayer and the Word for the vitality of a Christ-centered, gospel-driven, Spirit-filled, sin-destroying, sinner-saving, life-transforming, God-glorifying church in this fallen world.
Acts 2:42–47 reveals a vibrant, effective, and growing congregation that gathered in the temple for corporate worship and in homes for small-group disciple-making, sacrificial giving, and personal evangelism. Even the initial outbreak of persecution against them could not stop this gospel awakening. But what Satan could not do from the outside through persecution, he attempted to do from the inside with dissension and suspicion. Acts 6:1–7 records the problem and the Apostles’ solution.
The Greeks complained that the resources gathered from the sacrificial giving of the people were distributed only to the Hebrew widows. This was obviously an accusation of racial prejudice and bigotry. But before sinful allegations and reactive responses could tear the church asunder, godly leadership emerged.
The Apostles, as church elders, understood that the mercy ministry distribution was inequitable due to functional inadequacy, not bigotry. The church in Jerusalem was fourteen to twenty thousand strong but had only twelve recognized leaders, who were all focused upon shepherding, evangelism, and discipleship. The church had fallen into the trap of doing mercy ministry intentionally but not thoughtfully or carefully. Change was imperative, but an inappropriate shift of priorities could produce more problems. Twice they stressed the need to maintain the priority of “the ministry of prayer and the word” (Acts 6:2, 4) while addressing the necessary corrections for mercy ministry. They knew that if they gave more attention to mercy ministry and neglected prayer and the Word, there would be no one to minister, no resources available, and no heart for those in need.
So, they repositioned the Old Testament Levitical ministry, which provided administrative and mercy leaders for Israel, by appointing seven deacons to “serve the tables.” These deacons would handle administration, resources, and mercy ministry so that the Apostles/elders could maintain an effective ministry of discipleship. The result? The church applauded, affirmed, and participated in the solution, implementing a more effective mercy ministry while maintaining the lifelines of prayer and the Word for the vitality of the church.
Why did the Apostles realize the importance of prayer and the Word as the foundational lifelines of the church? I would suggest five reasons:
1. The Old Testament: The ministry of prayer and the Word was central to the vitality of Israel and provided the heart and impetus for mercy ministry. The revivals in the Old Testament, such as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, were always preceded by protracted times of prayer and the Word.
2. Christ’s example: The Apostles were discipled under the modeling and mentoring of Christ, who exemplified the priorities of prayer and God’s Word. His prayer life was so profound that they entreated Him, “Teach us to pray.”
3. Disciple-making: The Lord not only exhibited the lifelines of prayer and the Word before His disciples, He also ignited, inspired, and instructed them with prayer and the Word for three years.
4. The history of the church at Jerusalem: The importance of prayer and the Word was clear to the Apostles, since the Jerusalem church was conceived in a prayer meeting (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).
5. Church life: The life of the Jerusalem church is summarized in Acts 2:42 as “devoted to the Apostles’ teaching” (ministry of the Word) and “the prayers” (ministry of prayer).
Biblical, responsive, and thoughtful spirit-filled leadership is desperately needed in today’s church. Yet a key question remains: “Where is the priority of prayer and the Word in my life and the life of my church?” These lifelines are non-negotiable essentials necessary to connect us to the Fountain of grace, who transforms “trophies of grace” into “channels of grace” from which flow “rivers of living water,” resulting in praise to God, encouragement to believers, and the proclamation of the gospel. God’s grace in Christ brings the simplicity of devotion to prayer and the Word.