The early chapters of Acts record the first advances of the Gospel after our Lord died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and poured out his Spirit on the Church. It is a rather idyllic account of the powerful workings of the Spirit of God through the ministry of the apostles. One can easily assume that such movements of the Spirit will continue unimpeded as the Church continues its forward progress.
But such a romantic view of these early chapters is unrealistic. Satan is not about to stand by without a fight as the Gospel continues to advance. Acts chapters four through six record three specific attempts of the enemy to neutralize the work of God. The first two are not surprising. The third is rarely recognized as an attack, which, in itself, is evidence of its effectiveness.
Chapter four of Acts records Satan’s oft-repeated trump card against the Church: persecution. The high priest and the Sanhedrin rise up and threaten the apostles against public Gospel proclamation. But such an attack can never succeed; it only strengthened the hands of the apostles to be even more faithful to the Gospel, which in turn led to more souls hearing the message. Such a phenomena is not limited to the First Century. When Communism ascended to power in China in the Twentieth Century, it declared war against the Church. But such a plan failed as well. Today, China boasts one of the largest most mature Churches in the world. As an early Church Father stated, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Having failed to accomplish its goal of impeding the forward progress of the Gospel, Satan turned to his second means, hypocrisy. This was an attempt to dilute the pure workings of the Spirit with falsehood. The Spirit is always and ever the Spirit of truth, which means that He will only dwell where men and women are living together in truth. But that same Spirit dealt a deathblow to such leaven, stopping it dead in its tracks. The end result was the Church feared God even more as the Gospel made greater inroads into lives.
The third attack is rarely seen as an attack, which explains why it remains so effective today. Acts 6 records the temptation of leaders to abandon their Gospel work of prayer, study, and preaching the Gospel to serve tables. Thankfully, the apostles recognized and refused to give in to this subtle attack. It wasn’t because serving tables was beneath them, but that they were called to a different realm of service. Caring for widows was important work, but not a work God called the apostles to do. So they delegated this matter to others and guarded that which had been entrusted to them by the Lord. The result is not surprising: “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).
Judging from how most Christian leaders spend their time today, it would seem this attack continues to be effective. Today, leaders are given more to planning and programming than spending time in the presence of God, studying Scripture so as to know the mind of God, and preaching the Gospel. Most surveys continue to reveal that the majority of pastors and Christian leaders in America spend mere minutes daily in the presence of God. At the same time, the same surveys reveal hours spent in planning meetings and developing programs.
The apostles saw prayer and the ministry of the word as their main occupation, to be zealously guarded against other things. They used the word devote to describe their commitment to it (Acts 6:4). It is the translation of a strong Greek verb proskattereo meaning to persist in adherence to a thing; to be intently engaged in, attend constantly to. It is not leaders alone who are called to such devotion—the same word is used of those who responded to Peter’s Gospel in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42). But leaders are to lead the way by devoting themselves to a life of prayer and the ministry of the Word. The word devote reveals more than a passing interest like that of pursuing a hobby, but something which demands our fullest attention.
Leaders who are devoted to the right things should expect as a result a heightened sense of the presence of God, powerful preaching, and Spirit discernment. Such things are desperately needed today, and no amount of planning or programming can produce them. Only leaders devoted to a life of prayer and study of God’s Word and committed to Gospel preaching can legitimately expect similar results the early church saw in Acts.