Multiplication of Mercy

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

What would make the ministry of God’s Word more prosperous in your city? Consider your answer carefully. Would adding more Sunday school teachers, more small group leaders, more preachers, or even more congregations give God’s Word greater effect where you live? Certainly, more is better, right? Those of us who have theological educations may propose additional training so that lack of knowledge is removed as an impediment to the Word. We may also add prayer, repentance, unity, and even the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to our roster of responses. But what role does mercy play with regard to the ministry of God’s Word. The mercy ministry in the first century Jerusalem Church became gasoline to the Word’s fire.

Mercy sows. Organizational leaders tell us one’s vision reflects their values. What values does Jesus’ vision for the Church reflect? In the beginning, God gave Adam and Eve a “Cultural Mandate”: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28a). Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave a “Great Commission” to His new covenant people, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18a). Just as God placed in the DNA of Adam and Eve to “multiply”, so also Jesus placed “make disciples” in the DNA of His Church. In both cases—and in all cases—it is God’s Word which brings new birth. But do we ever consider the mercy of disciple-making?

Mercy grows. At the conclusion of Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:41), we are told that three thousand persons were added to the church on the day of Pentecost. This is the first of several instances in the early chapters of Acts when the Church experienced rapid growth (Acts 2:46-47, 4:4, 6:1, 6:7). Lest we should think the Church grows by the preaching of the Word alone, the report of Acts 6:7 is that the Church grew because the Word grew and the Word grew after the mercy of the Gospel message was applied to widows in the Church (Acts 6:1-6). Shortly after Pentecost, we learn that the people devoted themselves daily to the Apostles teaching and as an outworking of that teaching, they also sold their possessions and distributed them to anyone who was in need (Acts 2:42-47). Similarly, in the next chapter, Peter healed a lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3) and then preached the Gospel to a large multitude which led to the report of the church numbering five thousand men (Acts 4:4). Preceding each growth report, are great acts of mercy and powerful sermons, inseparably working in tandem to make disciples of the nations. At the end of Acts 4, when the believers gathered to pray, they prayed for two things, greater boldness with the word and miraculous wonders of God’s mercy. For them, mercy preached became mercy practiced. Is the same true for us?

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Delegation of Mercy

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

Acts 6:2-4

Did you ever try solving a problem only to create a big mess? Often, the solution in such instances is to simply ask others for help. Church leaders are sometimes guilty of refusing to share their work with others. However, the example of the Apostles in Acts teaches us the value of godly delegation.

One of the most difficult things to do is respond to life’s problems with grace. One of the first problems in the early church was presented to the apostles as a complaint. Because many Hebrew-speaking Christians from Judea considered them foreign, Greek-speaking Christian widows were being “neglected” by the Church. With the specter of old stereotypes threatening to infiltrate the Church from Judaism, the response of the Twelve is pure wisdom, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” By virtue of their calling, the apostles could not neglect the word any more than they could neglect the widows. By God’s amazing grace, neither were neglected by the Church in Jerusalem.

Spiritual problems have Holy Spirit solutions. The Twelve delegated the care of widows to seven men who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Special note should be taken that the men who were appointed as the first deacons of the Church all had Greek names (Acts 6:5b). How did the Twelve thwart discrimination in the Church? They found godly men among those suffering discrimination, empowered and commissioned them to serve along side the apostles and elders. The apostles delegated the ministry of mercy to those who understood and had experienced the need for mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” and once that mercy is gifted, the merciful become vessels of God’s mercy for those most in need of it.

A very godly young woman once told me, “Some problems can only be overcome through relationships.” How did Twelve overcome a problem which could have split the Church? The answer is not so much “how” but “who”. They trusted the Holy Spirit and those who are full of Him. Faith in God always brings us into His community and creates bonds of trust within it. The faith of the apostles pleased God and their trust in God’s people pleased the Church (Acts 6:5a).

When we face our problems alone, it is no great feat of our faith, but often the defeat of it.

Pressure washing is wonderful therapy for pastors. For those who spend most of their time laboring over the preaching and teaching God’s Word, but not always witnessing the immediate results of their work, there is something incredibly satisfying and sanctifying about watching years of dirt and mildew stains blasted away in seconds. I once spent a warm spring day in deep and meaningful spiritual renewal by pressure washing the exterior of my house and backyard privacy fence. By sunset, all that remained to be cleaned was the garage door, but the water hose had become tangled and the business end of the washer would not quite reach its target. Seeing a large knot, I vigorously worked the hose like a horsewhip hoping to create some “slack” in the line. Suddenly, the water pressure dropped, the hose went limp, and I knew there was a problem. Upon further inspection, a frustrating situation was revealed: the horsewhip technique had broken the spigot and pipe off at the exterior wall of the house and a geyser was spraying through the shrubbery. With my psyche snapping as easily as sun-bleached PVC, the day of therapy by pressure washer came—not so swimmingly—to an end. Sometimes we solve a problem, but create a mess because we don’t ask for help.

Jesus didn’t die to empower us for “Lone Ranger” lives. Solo work in the Church is only done by God. He sent His son to bring us into communion with Himself and His people (the Church). If the cross teaches us anything, it is that we can’t save or sanctify ourselves. We need help—a lot of help. When we ask God for help, He often assists us with the hands of His people. We can trust Him to solve our problems because Jesus has made a lot of things, but the one thing He never made was a mess.

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Dangers to Mercy

red-cross-lighthouse

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

Acts 6:1

You deserve a break today” was one of the McDonald Corporation’s most memorable commercial jingles. More dangerous to our health than the salty sea of saturated fat swallowed by salivating multitudes is the theological aperitif enticing hungry souls to believe we “deserve a break”. What if we discover that we are particularly undeserving? We may need to find a destination far more glorious than the golden arches.

Distraction is a danger to mercy. Between Pentecost in Acts 2 and the events of Acts 6, the Jerusalem church had experienced explosive, numerical growth. New believers flooded into the congregation like a tsunami, outnumbering and overwhelming the leaders of the young church. In their celebration of the Spirit’s successes, poor widows, who depended on Christian benevolence, were being neglected. But God is never distracted by His successes and the same Spirit who moves us to shout for our victories in Jesus also reminds us to temper triumph with mercy.

Many years ago, a small group Bible study leader faced a difficult situation. On a Saturday evening, one couple in his group became engaged to be married and were overjoyed. That same night, another couple in the group had a fight and permanently ended their engagement. Both couples arrived at church the following morning to share their news with their small group and receive appropriate support. The small group leader did not want to be a killjoy, but he had to consider the triumph of the one in light of the pain of the other. So he went to the joyful couple privately and asked them to celebrate with a touch of mercy, and they did so with grace and humility. The Gospel’s beauty shines brilliantly in life’s irreconcilable moments by showcasing Jesus who harmonizes our joys and sorrows in his cross.

Discrimination is a danger to mercy. During the ministry of the apostles, Greek-speaking Jews from around the Roman Empire were considered second-class citizens by Hebrew-speaking Jews from Jerusalem. Centuries of cultural barricades are not quickly dismantled and in the early days, the Church struggled against her historical prejudices. Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked by the “daily distribution of food” for the poor, so the injustice was reported to the apostles. We should all study how maturely they responded to the complaint. They did not defend themselves or deny the complaint, neither did they demonstrate the same discrimination by saying, “If you people don’t like it here, you can leave, after all, we’re doing the best we can! Do you know how busy we are caring for this church?” Discrimination is dangerous because it can split a church, but the apostles had their hearts set on being Jesus’ faithful witnesses to a diverse church “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus taught his disciples by numerous examples that there is no cultural canyon separating God’s people broader or deeper than His mercy (Matthew 15:21-28, Luke 7:1-10, Mark 5:1-20, John 4). Yes, discrimination is dangerous, but God’s mercy is omnipotent (Exodus 34:6-7).

Application Principle: Jesus didn’t die to empower us to despise peoples and cultures, but redeem them.

Pastor Randy Pope, in his book The Intentional Church, asks his readers to imagine their churches being magically transported to somewhere in Africa. He deepened the exercise by posing a series of culturally insightful questions: Would we worship in English or their language? Would we use our musical instruments or theirs? Would we dress in American clothing or theirs? As an act of mercy, we would build cultural bridges to people in Africa, but when we return home, we often segregate ourselves in the church according to our own subcultures based on age, race, or socioeconomic status. As Christ’s witnesses, charged with reaching the end of the earth, why is it so difficult just to reach the other side of town? We must not forget we are empowered for redemption, otherwise God’s mercy gets lost in translation.

Redemption began with mercy. God the Son, stepped out of a culture of glorious perfection—a world that was not just slightly different than ours, but infinitely disparate. Eternal, unchangeable, infinite God became finite, mutable, and mortal—bounded by time, flesh, and curse. Did he speak to us in his language or ours? Did he use his instruments or ours? Did he dress in heaven’s fashions or ours? No larger cultural gap exists than that which separates the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdom of heaven. Into our world, torn from its Creator, Jesus was born, and for a world restored to its Creator, Jesus died. And he didn’t die to empower us to despise our world, but to redeem it.

If you’re looking for the break you deserve, go to McDonald’s. But if you need a break you don’t deserve, go to Jesus.

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