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When God Is First

He Owns Our Status

Erwin W. Lutzer | November 2, 2003

Selected highlights from this sermon

Seven men were granted special ministry roles in the early church. These men were full of the Spirit, of good character, responsible, and wise. What was their lofty post? They were to wait tables, ensuring that the widows of the church received food. 

God still needs servants who are more interested in serving Him than gaining high status. And when we serve the Lord in faithfulness, more responsibility usually follows. 

When I was involved in another church I had a family in the church known as the Taters—the Tater family, a very interesting family. The father’s name was Dick. Dick Tater had to have everything go his way. If you disagreed with him it didn’t matter because at the end he had to win every argument, and everything had to be done the way in which he thought it should be done.

Now, opposites tend to attract, so we should not at all be surprised that Dick was attracted to Hesi. Hesi Tater could never make up her mind about anything. Hesi Tater always waited for others to go first, and then she would go, but she spent a lot of her time waiting for the motions of someone else.

It’s very interesting that they had a daughter, Imma. Imma was good looking enough, but she lacked originality. Imma Tater was always doing exactly what her peers were doing. She dressed the way they did. She spoke the way they did.

But the real piece of work in the family was the son. You should have met him. His name was Agi. (laughter) I’ll tell you, Agi Tater not only was in trouble himself, but he spent a lot of time getting a lot of other people in trouble too.

I looked at that family and, because I’m interested in human behavior, I did some work on them to try to figure them out, but I couldn’t. It was as if there was a mystery there until I met the grandfather, and I put it all together. That really helped. His name was Speck. (laughter) Speck Tater would come to church and sit near the back, arms folded all the time. He never brought a Bible with him. He always was wondering whether or not the service would be interesting, trying to see whether there was something in it that he liked. He was critical, particularly of the way in which the church spent his money, though old Speck, God bless him, never gave a dime. But he liked it that way because he went to this church because he liked the worship service, and he could sit near the back and be uninvolved. And Speck Tater liked what he was doing and was determined that he would never make a single sacrifice for anyone else, and particularly not his church.

One of the things we discover in the New Testament is that the Early Church was energized by the Holy Spirit, and from what I can determine in the book of Acts, they really had no Specks—no spectators. Everybody was involved because God was doing something. God was moving. God was advancing the kingdom and they were on the cutting edge. But a very interesting thing happened. Satan tried to destroy them, first of all through persecution. When that didn’t work, why indeed he then had a couple within the church, Ananias and Sapphira, about whom we spoke last time, and he was going to use this couple’s hypocrisy to bring the church down. God didn’t let that happen if you remember how the story ended.

And now what we have in Acts, chapter 6, is murmuring. The text opens before us, and I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to it and find out that in those days when the number of disciples was increasing, they had a problem. Increase is always a good problem. Maybe you have to build a building when you have increases. But in those days the number of disciples was increasing. The Grecian Jews, the Hellenists, complained against the Hebraic Jews, the Hebrew Jews, because they were saying that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

In order to understand this, you have to realize that this was not a controversy between Jews and Gentiles. This was a controversy between Jews—groups of Jews. There were some Jews who stayed in the land. They were the Hebrew Jews. And then there were other Jews who migrated to different countries, in this case, Greece. And they forgot the Hebrew language. They couldn’t remember it very well. The first generation died off. Then you have the second generation, and they don’t know Hebrew very well, maybe a form of Aramaic, but they also picked up some symptoms of Greek culture, so they are different. They are Jews, but they are different. And so they were the ones who were saying, “You know, our widows are being neglected. God is blessing who it is being distributed to and we’re not getting a fair shake.”

It’s very interesting to see how the Apostles resolved this. They could have said to themselves, “Well, we have a plan, and this is it: A, B, C and D!” No! They took charge but they allowed the congregation to make some decisions too, a beautiful blend of strong leadership and congregational involvement.

Look at what the text says (verse 2): “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.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (and also Philip).” And then five others are listed, and then they laid their hands on them.

What’s interesting is that scholars for years have seen that the seven that they chose are actually Hellenist names. In other words, what they said is, “If it’s you folks who come to us from Greece and you are having the problem, we’ll put some of your number who are sympathetic to your cause and we’ll put them in charge of the ministry to solve this problem.”

You know, when God is first in your life you regard others as better than you do yourself. I’m not sure if I’m there yet, but I’d like to be there—regarding others better than myself when God is first. When God is first you don’t have to sit on your rights and say to yourself, “I deserve this. This isn’t fair.” You’re willing to give up your rights for the honor and glory of God and the good of the church and the good of the body as these Hebrew believers did.

Now, when the Apostles said, “It is not good for us to lead the word of God and wait on tables,” please don’t misunderstand that. They were not saying that waiting on tables is beneath us because, after all, we are preachers of God’s Holy Word. It’s very clear, as we’ll see in a moment that that’s not what they meant. What they were saying is that there is a division of labor within the body, that some of us who are called to the ministry, the word of God and prayer, had better do that, and we can’t do everything and there are other people in the church who can do things that we can’t do, and they can do them better than we can. And so let’s divide up the labor for the good of the body and for the strength of the body. That’s what they’re saying.

So how do you know that they didn’t think that waiting on tables was beneath them? It’s because notice the requirements that they have to be a servant to wait on tables. That’s the striking thing. My sermon today is based on verse 3, and in verse 3 you have four requirements that are given to wait on tables. And I think we’re going to be surprised at what those requirements really are.

First of all, it says in verse 3 that the twelve said: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you.” That’s the phrase—men who are committed to the body, whom God has raised up among us. Why that? Do you know that in the early church, it says that when people were saved they were added to the Lord? They were not added to a denomination. They were added to the Lord. And the Lord’s body was growing, and everyone who was saved was as much subject to the head as my hand is subject to my head. And so there was a part of every one… Or let me say it this way. Everyone had a part in the body. Everyone had a place that they would fit, and what God was saying is that “as my body grows and as it increases, it is subject to the head, and I keep increasing it in such a way that it can continue to increase. And therefore, look out for yourselves because what you need to do is to realize that I have already placed my hand on people in your congregation among you who are going to be able to take over these responsibilities.”

Listen up everyone who works in the kitchen at Moody Church (Okay?) and ushers and car parkers and greeters and people who clean this building. Listen up! God says, “From within you I’m raising up leadership.”

Now, let’s talk about Moody Church for a moment. God has given us many fine ministries, but we as a staff spend an awful lot of time talking about the fact that we do not have enough people to fill in the gaps and to minister. Yes, we’ve heard about Cabrini-Green, and how we thank God for that ministry, and we do need other churches to help us there, but we also have children’s ministries right here. And some of our children’s ministries are languishing because there are not enough people to fill in the gaps. Could it be that God who raises up ministries also raises up leadership for those ministries, but there is somebody sitting in the balcony today somewhere that is supposed to be involved but isn’t?

You’ll notice in your bulletin today that we have a lavender insert. Read through this list of opportunities for ministry involvement at Moody Church. Don’t do it now, but I want to make sure you have it now, and put it in your Bible. And it’ll tell you what kind of needs we have here at The Moody Church, and how you can help us. And could I simply say that we need your help? Read my lips. We need your help. And if you’re not sure whether or not you can do the job, check with somebody. Maybe they can help you. But there are ministries that people need to be doing. I cannot believe that God would raise up these ministries, and children’s ministries is only one among many as you can see… God isn’t going to raise these up and not provide leadership among us. Somebody is shirking his or her duty. I really deeply believe that. The first requirement is “look among you and see whom God has called and gifted.” They are there. Now we have a large congregation. We need your help to be identified, and to be helped in the ministry.

There’s a second qualification, and that is, you’ll notice, proven character. Now this isn’t as clear in the NIV, my translation that I’m using today, as it should be. But you’ll notice it says they said, “those among you who are known.” Who are known! The Greek text actually says this: “Who are witnessed to (or attested to).” That’s a better way to translate it. What they are saying there is “people of proven character.” Choose someone whom you know who has been faithful in some task, somebody whose character is beyond reproach, and put them into positions of responsibility, and God is going to bless your work because integrity is what we as a church sell. Integrity! Especially today! It’s always been important but especially today. It is so incredibly important, so look among you and find people of character, and find someone who can attest to this individual, and put them in charge.

I was thinking about this yesterday morning as I was working on this message, and thinking, “You know, before we have someone as a deacon or an elder, we should not only ask their colleagues, which we often do, to see whether or not they are of a tested character, but we should really check with their wives, and ask the wife and say, “Now, you know, you live with this guy. Could you tell me please whether or not you think… Would you attest to his character?” because she knows what’s going on in the home. And God knows what’s going on in the home, but he’s not telling. Maybe she will.

Folks, this is important. I was thinking this morning as I was listening to the news, and I just saw a news flash very quickly that the Episcopal church, I believe, is in the process… This message is being preached at a time when they are in the process of ordaining an openly gay minister. Now I thought to myself, “What’s the key word here? Openly? If it were secret would it be okay? But it’s openly that’s the problem?” My dear friend, D. L. Moody said that character is what we are in the dark, attested character, dependable, faithful. That’s the second requirement to wait on tables.

Let’s go on to a third. I love this third. You’ll notice it says, “Full of the Spirit.” Oh, my friend, today, doesn’t this blow a hole through that notion that the filling of the Spirit is for spiritual people like pastors and missionaries and other people who go to heaven every evening and return again in the morning? (laughter) It’s for people like that, but it’s not for the ordinary person who works at a Ford Motor Company, or who works in a saw mill, or he works in a bank, or an office or a hospital. It’s not for those kinds of people, and it’s not for those, you know, who are ushers. Oh no! It’s not for those who park cars, or greet people.

I want you to know that the filling of the blessed Holy Spirit is for every believer, and it is a requirement for those who serve in the church, no matter what their responsibility is within the church.

You say, “Why is it necessary? I don’t have to be filled with the Holy Spirit to do some of these things.” By the way, I should pause to tell you that I have often been deeply convicted by the words of George MacDonald who said this: “Whatever a man does without God, in that he must either fail miserably or succeed even more miserably.” So one of our problems is we can do these things in the energy of the flesh, but there’s no substitute for the work that Jesus Christ wants to do in our hearts. And remember that one of the purposes of the church is to make the invisible God visible to everyone who comes. When people come to Moody Church what should they say? Based on 1 Corinthians, “Surely God is in that place.” And that’s why we need Spirit-filled ushers and Spirit-filled parkers, and Spirit-filled people who work at camp, and Spirit-filled people who work in our kitchens because apart from Jesus, He said, “We can do nothing.” Nothing! Do I have a witness or am I all alone up here? (applause)

I’ve been deeply convicted this past week reading a book by Jim Cymbala on the power of the Spirit. I’ve read parts of it before, but it is speaking to my heart, and I have determined that in my own life and ministry the thing that I need more of is to seek the filling of the Holy Spirit. You say, “Well, aren’t you filled with the Spirit?” Yeah, I’m filled with the Holy Spirit, but interestingly in the New Testament it says that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Then it says again, “They were filled with the Holy Spirit” and filled. Why? It’s a continuous experience, and I testify with D. L. Moody that I leak.

You know, you say, “Well, we don’t have to seek the Spirit’s wholeness. We have the Spirit indwelling within us.” Yes, that’s a blessed truth. It’s just like saying that when we are saved, we have found Jesus as our Savior. More accurately, of course, He has found us, but we’ve connected with Jesus. And yet we seek Him out. You know, we constantly keep saying, “God, we need more, we need more.” We need to enter into the fullness of the Blessed Holy Spirit, and that is for every single believer—every believer.

There’s a fourth requirement and that is to be filled with wisdom. Filled with wisdom! I mean just sanctified common sense and Spirit-led direction. I’ve been in the ministry long enough to work with a variety of different people. The best people I’ve ever worked with in my life, by the way, I am working with right now. A marvelous pastoral staff—elders, leadership of the church! Praise God! But sometimes we put people in positions of responsibility who shouldn’t be there. And we may do it because we kind of like them. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, and everything like that, but they are in a position of responsibility for which they are not qualified. And I’m not talking about giftedness. I’m talking about character. I’m talking about being filled with the Spirit, and just having sanctified common sense or what we could call wisdom. The Bible says that there is a wisdom that is from the earth. It is earthly! I’m amazed at the number of Christians who raised their children based solely on human wisdom. And we have the great danger of accepting human wisdom and thinking that it’s wise when there is divine wisdom.

I’ve participated in many discussions that go like this. Should the church be run as a business? Well, let me ask you. Should the church be run as a business? I have to tell you it’s a trick question, and the reason it’s a trick question is it depends on what you mean. If you mean should the church be run smoothly, administratively, accurately and with accountability in the best possible way, if that’s running the church as a business, then the church should be run as a business. And we thank God for those here in the leadership of Moody Church in areas such as finance and others who are really expert in being able to bring that kind of giftedness to us so that we maintain high standards of integrity and reporting procedures. Of course, it should be run as a business if that’s what we’re talking about.

But if what we mean when we say the church should be run as a business is that it’s based on promotion, that it’s based on slick methodology, and it’s based on being able to get ahead of the next person, or having such a slick campaign that you really don’t need God, then the answer is, “No, the church should not be run as a business.” The church has to move forward on its knees, seeking God. That’s how we move forward as a church and as a congregation. (applause)

And so what the early disciples did is they said, “Now, we want you to choose these people and they are to wait on tables.” You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, the requirements here… You mean that these are the preachers of the Word.” No, these are the table waiters. These are the ushers. And the Bible is very, very clear. God intends that His Blessed Holy Spirit inhabit the whole church.

I don’t know whether or not I should say this, but I’m going to say it and then decide later if I should have said it. That’s one of the things, you know, about preaching is you get a chance to say it and then you get a chance to think about whether or not you should have said it. But there are some of you serving in this church maybe who should disqualify yourself from your service because you know that you don’t come anywhere near the requirements of serving in the House of God.

You know, I had the privilege of being at the Brooklyn Tabernacle a few years ago, and I was told by someone who visited that on a Saturday morning he was downstairs praying with a group of people before they went out witnessing, and as he was leaving he heard another prayer meeting going on in another room. And he said, “What’s going on there? Is another group going out with us?” They said, “No, those are the custodians who meet and cry to God and pray before they begin to clean the Lord’s House for the Lord’s Day.”

We understand that the requirements of serving in the House of the Lord… Be ye holy ye who bear the vessels of the Lord. The dishes downstairs are holy dishes. The aisles are holy aisles. The car park is a holy place where God is represented in His people.

Let me give you two important lessons, and then we shall ask God to change us forever. Number one, it’s not what you do really that makes the difference. It’s for whom you do it that gives every act significance. For whom do I preach? For whom do you sing, choir? For whom do you serve? For whom are you involved in any level of ministry here? For whom do you do children’s ministry? We have to ask ourselves the questions: “Is it done for others? Is it done that we might be well thought of? Is it done so that we can get our rewards here on earth and be told how wonderfully we are doing it?” Or do we really genuinely say, “Jesus, this is for you”? And our great example is Jesus Himself.

We think of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. A marvelous, marvelous experience and a wonderful sermon! The best sermon that’s ever been preached! But then in another context we see Jesus washing the dusty, dirty feet of His disciples. What Jesus is saying is, “Look, it doesn’t matter whether I preach the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t matter whether or not I change diapers, or wash the disciples’ feet, because this is what My Father planned for Me to do, and I always do those things that please Him. Therefore, my motivation is to say, ‘Does this please the Father? Does this glorify the Father?’” That’s our true motivation in service, and it cleanses us from all of those fleshly desires of self-exaltation because when God is first, as this sermon title indicates, He owns our status, and we are satisfied with where He puts us within the Body.
God does a deep work in the human heart when He is first.

I think one of the best examples of someone here at The Moody Church is probably not here listening to this message. His name is Bervin Peterson. Berv is the chairman of our Board of Elders, a man who gives us good guidance and good sane godly wisdom and advice. But you know, Berv doesn’t come on the first Sunday of the month. Really? Yeah, that’s right! He’s probably not here. I don’t know if he is but I don’t think so. I’ll find out later, needless to say. Berv is over at the parking lot, parking people’s cars, and making sure that those cars are still there when the service is over. On the one hand he serves so well in the ministry, but he sees no hesitancy or contradiction or something beneath him to be out there in good weather and bad weather, in storm and in rain, and in sunshine, helping people park their cars, and needing to miss the service because that’s where he’s serving. It doesn’t matter what you do. It’s for whom you do it that really matters. He’s going to be shocked to discover that he was the sermon illustration today so take it easy on him. But we love him and praise God for his leadership.

The second big lesson is that faithfulness in one responsibility leads to greater faithfulness in another. You say, “Well, what was more important? Waiting on tables or preaching the Word?” The answer is that they were equally important, but preaching the Word undoubtedly has greater responsibility. The Bible is clear about that. There’s a difference between equal importance and equal responsibility. The preaching of the Word, the Bible is clear, brings much more condemnation if it’s not done well and accurately and truthfully. But still, in terms of importance, all of these things were equally important (the waiting on the tables). But isn’t it interesting what God did? He took two people. Stephen was one of the ones that was chosen. And next week we’re going to discover that he was the first martyr. And I’ve already been working on that sermon. You know, when he dies and looks into heaven… As the young people would say, “I’m excited about it already. I am pumped,” as they would say.

Next week’s sermon! He becomes the first martyr, and Philip, God bless him, becomes the first evangelist, and we’re going to be talking about him the next week. God says, “You’re faithful in waiting on tables. Ah, I have someone here I can now trust with greater responsibility. The ministry of the Word! I can entrust him with the courage to die for Jesus because he was faithful.”

You know, the Bible says that those who serve… And these are really deacons even though the name isn’t mentioned. The word isn’t mentioned but a deacon means a servant. It says, “They have used the office of a deacon or a servant well. They purchase for themselves a good degree, great boldness in faith which is in Jesus Christ.”

Jesus said this regarding money. He said, “If I cannot trust you with that which is a little thing…” Pardon me, Jesus, did I hear you right? Money a little thing? I once had someone in another church, and this is a true story… I guess it was one of those Taters who used to say, “Oh, you know, money isn’t first, but it beats whatever comes second.” Shame on him! Jesus said it’s a little thing. He said, “If I can’t trust you with a little thing, if you get jittery when there’s an offering taken at the church, or when there’s a desire for us to see God do something wonderful so that we can build a building, if you get nervous about this, who is going to entrust to you the true riches?” said Jesus. If you can’t wait on tables how are you going to preach?

There’s a final word and lesson, and that is that we don’t give until we receive. The choir sang so beautifully “Come to the Fountain—come to the water, come to receive everlasting life.” And we already gave you that opportunity because salvation is free. It’s given to needy sinners who know how bad off they are. But having been saved, we are called to ministry, called to involvement, not to be spectators, but to say, “Oh God, here’s my talent. Here’s my time. Here’s my treasure. Here’s all of me.” We fall at His feet and say, “God, use us in whatever way You desire.”

If we were all Spirit-filled, marching in the victory of the resurrection of Christ, Chicago would know about us.

Join me as we pray.

Our Father, in Jesus’ name, we want to give ourselves to You—all those pockets of resistance and those areas in which we say, “Yeah, but!” Oh, Father, may they be like puffs of smoke in the presence of Your Word. We can’t change human hearts. We cannot transform bitterness into love. We cannot take people who do not want to serve and cause them to. That’s all Your work. That’s all Your work!
We cry to You and we ask You, God, to make us a transforming community, an irresistibly transforming community because we are Spirit-filled, Spirit-led and directed by the Holy Spirit. We need that, Lord, and it takes time to be that. Grant us that time in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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