Home > Miscellaneous > “It would not be right for us… to wait on tables”

“It would not be right for us… to wait on tables”

The imaginative Perry Polnaszek told me I should blog about a particular verse I mentioned as we were discussing church issues together and I was talking about the book of Acts and its portrayal of authority. He said “he’s never heard Acts explained in this way.” Or something like that. Admittedly, Acts has always confused me and there have been so many places that have made little sense and seem like useless extra details. It doesn’t do so nearly as much anymore. I’ve grown in appreciation and understanding of the literary capacity of its author Luke. I owe my developing understanding to Thorsten Moritz of Bethel Seminary. I don’t remember what he taught or have any idea how much of my interpretation is my own and how much is his, but I remember very clearly one thing he said, “God never told the disciples to cast lots to replace Judas.” After hanging my head and thinking about how naïve and stupid I was, that statement unlocked the narrative for me.

In Acts 6:1-7, the Big 12 have a conference (hey-o!) and decide that “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” instead of table-waiting they want to give their time to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” These statements assume quite a few things. One is that waiting on tables and the ministry of the word are mutually exclusive and cannot be done at the same time. Another is that by waiting on tables they won’t have the time necessary to bring the word of God to others. The statement also assumes a sort of hierarchy of importance of tasks. Obviously since the 12 are indeed, THE Twelve, they should be doing the highly spiritual tasks of prayer and teaching and leave the table waiting to others. It’s quite interesting in light of Jesus and other occurrences in Acts.

First, let’s look at some things Jesus says in the book of Luke. Luke is the author of Luke and Acts, and the two books are meant to be understood in tandem.

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Lk 10:21). It would seem the disciples in Acts are acting much less like children of God, and instead assume their own invaluable wisdom and learning.

“For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest.” Is the least a prayer and minister of the word, or a table-waiter?

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:25-27

Hmmm… does the Big 12’s situation seem like an almost word for word practical application of this? Although He was, presumably, able to pray and teach better than anyone, Jesus was among us as one who serves. He talks about himself as the one who does the unexpected and waits on tables. Yet, the disciples seem to either deliberately forget or fail to interpret what Jesus said in Luke 22 as relevant to their situation in Acts 6. It’s my contention that Jesus meant exactly what He said here and that it’s just as applicable after the resurrection as it was before his death. The kingdom is not one of authority exercised and benefitting from the work of others, but where the power of God becomes most manifest through the most humble servants.

These passages from the book of Luke provide a backdrop for understanding the contrast between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of the disciples here, but the substantive development of my interpretation happens within the book of Acts itself. There are a lot of passages and developments rushing through my head, but I’ll try to just highlight the main points.

One interesting thing is that when we see the 12 apostles doing the most for the gospel and the explosion of the message of Jesus, it is at the same time when the rulers of Jerusalem are rejecting them and it is noted that “they were unschooled, ordinary men” that “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). What’s interesting to me is that they decided, without credentials, that they were the ones who were most vital to the community and so must be doing the tasks that require a higher understanding and a stronger spiritual life. Everyone “under” them was just as qualified as they were for prayer and the ministry of the word. The Spirit of Jesus was alive and well in the church, and it would seem that, according to the author of Acts, the only qualification necessary for the ministry of the word was being with Jesus. The immediately proceeding stories confirm that the assumed credentials are unnecessary.

After everything was situated with choosing the table waiters, then “the word of God spread” (Acts 6:7). How did it spread? Well, the narrative proceeds to tell us who was doing the spreading. Stephen, chosen to be a table waiter (6:5), “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people”(6:8) and he was so persuasive through the Spirit (6:10) that those who opposed him made up lies about him to get him punished (11). Does this remind you of anyone? (ie: JESUS!). After this, Stephen is taken before the authorities and responds to the charges against him with a beautiful, passionate, and compelling speech about God’s redemptive work in history and how YHWH is continuing this redemptive process through Jesus Messiah. So, the religious authorities kill him. As he is dying, Stephen asked Jesus to receive his spirit and for their sin of murder not to be held against them. Stephen’s brief story mirrors Jesus’ final days on earth more closely than any other story we have in Scripture. In his life he acts like Jesus by serving tables, talks like Jesus by proclaiming the gospel with such clarity and power that no one can stand up to him, authorities clinging tightly to the control their theology gives them lie about

Stephen in order to kill him, and Stephen dies with his spirit received by his Lord and forgiveness in his heart. Stephen was a table-waiter. Among the disciples as one who serves…

And then all the believers “were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (8:1). Except the 12. Why not? It would seem that the twelve had some sort of special relationship with the Jewish religious authorities. They seemed to be exempt from persecution. It’s interesting. Why would they persecute everyone else that claimed Jesus as Lord, but not the twelve. Jesus wasn’t even exempt from persecution. Perhaps the apostles were not speaking the truth with the same boldness as Jesus or Stephen. At the very least, the narrative does not display the disciples lack of persecution and scattering as a good thing. Why not?

“Those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed Christ there” (8:4-5). Earlier in Acts, Jesus charged the disciples with an awesome task that He promised to equip them for: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8)The scattered believers spread the gospel to Judea. In the narrative, Philip is the one credited with bringing the gospel to Samaria; the disciples haven’t even left Jerusalem. Philip was another of the seven table waiters. The lofty disciples only left Jerusalem because Philip had blazed the trail to Samaria. Then Philip brings the message of Jesus to an Ethiopian. Why is this awesome? Because in the cultural consensus of the day, Ethiopia was considered the “ends of the earth.” So, while the disciples are in Jerusalem sitting pretty, table waiters are showing themselves to be incredibly Christlike and carrying out the most extensive tasks that Jesus asked of them. The table-waiters end up being the people seeing the glory of God (7:55) and involved in the most dramatic and exalted ministries of the word. And they don’t even care, they are just around to serve.

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Categories: Miscellaneous
  1. David C. Miller
    April 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Jeremiah,

    I disagree with some of this.

    First, you seem opposed to the practice of selecting Matthias to replace Judas by casting lots. I could be mis-reading you. Do you just disagree that the office should be filled, or do you think that the means used of casting lots was a bad one?

    Casting lots was a way for God to ‘have the final say’. This teaches that Christ is the ultimate head of the church, not people. The practice also had precedent: 1 Chronicles 26:13 says that lots were cast to see who would be ministers/gatekeepers, Nehemiah 10:34 and 11:1 has people casting lots to see who is going to bring what into the rebuilt Jerusalem, God worked through casting lots to judge Jonah, and Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”

    Shouldn’t we applaud the apostles for leaving the final decision up to God rather than themselves?

    Secondly, I think you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you examine the issue of authority. The apostles were chosen by God, sent out by him, called to be apostles. In several places, Paul has to assert his own apostolic authority: 1 Corinthians 9 is clear about that. Paul maintains that he has the right to be paid for the work he has done, but he will waive that right out of love for the Corinthians. This suggests that preaching and building a church is just as legitimate a work as making tents (or waiting on tables).

    Look also at 1 Corinthians 4, Hebrews 3, and especially 1 Corinthians 12. Apostles have been given authority by Jesus (who in a similar way was given authority by his father). They do not claim this authority as coming from themselves, and that is why they do not get in trouble with Jesus’ command that “the first of you must be like the least”.

    Let me put this a different way. God has called members of his church to do different things: some can teach Sunday School, others can use musical talents to praise God, others can witness to friends or usher. But would we get mad at a Sunday School teacher if they aren’t very good at public speaking before congregations? Do we accuse choir directors of being holier-than-thou if they don’t want to usher? The apostles are saying in Acts 6 that they are specially called to a spiritual ministry instead of a material one. That doesn’t imply that they are “better” than other members who do perform a material ministry, but it does mean that they have authority.

    I’ve rambled for a while, but to summarize: the apostles devoting themselves to prayer and ministry of the word instead of waiting tables does not imply that they ‘lorded themselves over others’ who would do that work. Indeed, many of the apostles paid a terrible price for their apostleship. Being beaten, thrown in jail, and eventually crucified doesn’t sound like the apostles were in it for their own glory, but for God’s.

  2. April 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    :). It’s always difficult knowing whether I want to respond to every point you make or give a more general response that’s perhaps helpful. We’ll try the latter. I am not trying to perform a systematic treatment of authority in Scripture or the New Testament, but talk about the narrative itself and what I think Luke is trying to communicate through the way he writes his narrative. I would contend that the historical price the apostles paid for their ministry of the word is not relevant for the interpretation of the narrative, unless the events were precursors and information the intended audience had in mind. I am not trying to talk negatively about the people, but am trying to talk honestly about the characters.

  3. David C. Miller
    April 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I’m doing a bad job of communicating the institution of the Holy Office of the Ministry.

    So let’s try to see where we disagree about Luke’s narrative.

    I read the story of the apostles deciding that it’s not their job to wait on tables, and I say:

    “Good for the apostles! They are clearly demonstrating that they recognize God’s call. Nowadays we should also recognize the different ways God is calling each of us to serve Him. God has especially called some people to administer the Word and Sacraments.”

    I hate putting words in your mouth, but I am going to do so anyway because this is the Internet ;). Feel free to correct me!

    You read the story of the apostles deciding that it’s not their job to wait on tables, and you say:

    “Bad on the apostles! They did not truly recognize God’s call to serve one another. If they did, they would understand that they should be humble and willing to do any job, no matter how mundane or lowly. Jesus washed feet, but they won’t wash tables!?! Let’s follow Jesus’ example and be more humble.”

    I support my understanding of the narrative for 2 reasons:

    1. The apostles aren’t reprimanded for doing this. If they were in the wrong, surely God would have told them. When Peter was wrongly teaching that gentiles had to follow Jewish customs, God worked through Paul to correct this.

    2. If the apostles were being arrogant instead of humble, this doesn’t jive well with their behavior throughout the rest of the book. They were willing to endure persecution for the sake of the Gospel, but they didn’t wait tables because they were too proud?

    (Instead, I say they didn’t wait tables because they knew it wasn’t their calling to do so.)

  4. April 13, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Yeah, I’m with David on this. A need arose and the apostles already had a huge job to do, so they delegated the responsibility to others.

  5. April 15, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I really appreciate feedback and different perspectives on how Luke’s story should be interpreted. So, thanks David and Zech. I love hearing and processing your thoughts. I especially love that you disagree with me. It’s refreshing. I’m not sure where to start, let’s see…
    I recognize that this sort of interpretation of this passage is, while probably not unique, not typical. So, I think I did use language that was a little more strong than what is quite right because I think that strong language is sometimes helpful in perspective shifting. I don’t believe Acts necessarily portrays the 12 apostles as arrogant, but most often in Luke-Acts the author illustrates them as not really understanding the nature of the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming and bringing. Maybe proud, but there’s no way of really knowing… misunderstanding is more accurate.
    The aspect of casting lots isn’t something I think is a negative (but it does has some interesting ties to former priests, and its interesting that they only picked two people to cast lots between if they really wanted to leave the decision up to God). What’s silly is that they thought it was necessary to replace Judas in the first place. Read Psalm 69 and 109. They’re pretty irrelevant. It’s quite interesting that the verses Luke chose to cite before Peter “logically” moves to “therefore…”(Acts 1:21) are 2 verses that seem contradictory. As a reader, I think the only reason we have to trust that Peter is doing exactly what God would have him do here is our presuppositions that we bring to the narrative about Peter. I think the narrative evidence of Luke-Acts, including evidence immediately surrounding the casting lots, does not illustrate Peter as trustworthy character in terms of his ability to get it right. Although he is an honorable character because he is always around and always trying. I think the casting lots passage sets the tone for what Peter and co. are seen doing throughout the narrative of Acts. They keep trying to do something that fits in their Jewish mindset. Trying to have twelve of them representing the twelve tribes is one such example. I don’t think the Luke-Acts narrative is trying to paint them as horrible people, but laying out for us their very slowly progressive understanding as to what the Messianic Kingdom is about and I think reflecting a Pauline view that (by chance or deliberately) the twelve in Jerusalem “seemed to be important” and were “reputed to be pillars” (Galatians 2).
    Feel free to put words in my mouth. I understand the difficulty of summarizing and that I am an inadequate communicator in the first place. I don’t read it and think, “bad on the apostles,” but “hmmm, the way they said that is suspicious and it sounds different than the serving one another that Jesus described. I’m gonna keep my eye on this and see how it turns out.” Then, in the narrative, the tables turn and Jesus’ words about the least being the greatest (perhaps “most like Jesus” in the case of Stephen) coming true, not for those who took extra time to do the ministry of the word, but for those that took extra time to wait on tables.
    After my suspicion, where the narrative proceeds to go determines my interpretation of the statement of the twelve about how they should be doing the ministry of the word. If what they did was exactly what God would have them do (and, again, the text does not give us any surrounding indication that it was), then I would expect to see them, free from the tasks of table-waiting, preaching the message even more powerfully, with greater response, more signs, and carrying out Jesus’ call to them to go to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. But instead, I see the table waiter Stephen with an incredibly powerful speech and facing the most terrible circumstances and betrayal by his own ethnic group with the same love and boldness as Jesus. Then the rest of the disciples are preaching the gospel all over Judea and Samaria. The twelve are still in Jerusalem. When Philip informs them that the gospel has come to Samaria, they scramble over there. Then Philip brings the message to the ends of the earth while the disciples are still playing catch up in Samaria.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Paul’s reprimand of Peter was outside the narrative of Acts, something that he talked about in Galatians, thus I don’t know if Luke would give us a reprimand. At least not an explicitly stated one, although it might present itself obvious through deliberate moves in the writing of the narrative.
    Um, at all helpful?

  6. David C. Miller
    April 16, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Jeremiah,

    Peter referring to Psalms 69, 109 and maybe alluding to Psalm 41 fit together to me; I wouldn’t call them irrelevant. All are psalms written by the anointed king, David, complaining about enemies (especially enemies close to him that should have been his friends). The shift from one anointed king enduring persecution (David) to another (Jesus Christ) is pretty straightforward.

    As for the two quoted verses being contradictory, I agree that it can be confusing. If “no one should dwell in his place”, why then immediately say “may another take his place of leadership”?

    I take it to mean that Judas’s influence and place of honor as a disciple should be taken away forever and completely from him. But the leadership position that he held should be retained and filled.

    To say “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in his tents” is to say the same thing twice: let no part of Judas be left in the office he held.

    To then say “May another take his place of leadership” is confusing, but Peter is making a distinction between the kinds of people who will take his place. Perhaps you could translate it as “May my enemies’ place be deserted and abandoned, becoming devoid of all enemies; let there be no enemies left there. Instead of enemies, my friends will live in that place instead.”

    John Calvin writes this in his commentary:

    ***
    But whereas Peter doth cite out of the Scriptures two diverse testimonies; by the first is meant, that Judas, together with his name and family, should quite be extinguished, that his place might be empty; the other, which he fetcheth out of the 109th Psalm, tendeth to this end, that there should be another chosen to supply his place. These seem at first to be contrary; namely, a waste habitation and succession. Yet, because the Spirit saith only, in the former place, that the adversaries of the Church should be taken away, that their place might be empty, and without one to dwell therein, in respect of themselves, this is no let why another may not afterward supply their empty place. Yea, this doth also augment their punishment, in that the honor, after it was taken from him that was unworthy thereof, is given to another.
    ***

    Peter contends that David was being prophetic when he wrote those words. Why should we trust that he is correct? I think it’s because Peter and the rest of the apostles had just been taught this directly from Jesus.

    ***
    Luke 24:44-45
    [Jesus] said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

    Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
    ***

    I’d like to deal more with Acts 6 later, maybe sometime this weekend. Thanks for a thought-provoking post and response.

  7. April 17, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    I think that the reconciliation of those two passages proposed by yourself and Johnny C is probably the best reconciliation. However, I don’t think the text gives reason enough to try to reconcile these verses to make Peter seem like he is doing what God wanted him too. I think that a better interpretation requires no reconciliation of these apparently contradictory verses fits the text better because the author intended for the verses Peter brings up to be contrary. Especially given the way those psalms really aren’t very fitting to the situation unless the verses are taken out of context. If someone I knew grabbed a verse from a psalm like that to make a decision, I would tell them it was a bad interpretation. I don’t think that Jesus opening up the minds to understand the Scriptures was something that was a general event that was true from that point on, but one specific to Jesus explaining to them that the foolishness of the cross was God’s plan for the Messiah all along, something they really didn’t get until this point. I don’t see enough narrative evidence to show that after this point, Peter becomes a character that the reader can trust is doing the right thing, he just doesn’t have Jesus around to correct him anymore. I also think we’re just going to be talking in a circle here if we keep going. Not to put words in your mouth, but you say, “Saint Diego,” I say, “A Whale’s Vagina.”

    Appreciate the feedback. I love different perspectives on a text.

  1. March 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm

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