The church in Jerusalem has been growing at a very fast rate. Many thousands of people had been added to the faith. This development had caused dismay in the camp of the enemy, the devil, and he had already tried to hinder the expansion of the church by threats from the Jewish religious authorities against the leaders of the church and by false disciples (Ananias and Sapphira) within the church. These tactics of intimidation and infiltration had failed. The church was still on fire for Christ, so the devil had to find another way by which he could silence the community of Christ. This is a fact of the spiritual life – if the devil fails in one method, we should expect him to try another way. And in the Jerusalem church he had observed a potential tool in a complaint that was simmering in one group in the church, the Hellenists, against another group identified as the Hebrews. Each group was Jewish.
The difference between the groups on this occasion was not one of doctrine, neither group was guilty of heresy. Instead the problem was connected to an oversight among those responsible for ensuring that widows connected to the church were provided with their daily needs. It is easy to see how this problem could arise. Historians tell us that at this time many older Jews from other countries used to move back to Jerusalem for the final years of their lives. Inevitably, there would be a lot of widows among them. They had become Christians, but for one reason or another they had been overlooked. Perhaps it was due to the simple assumption by the Hebrew Jews that a similar arrangement had been made among the Hellenists for their widows.
There is a reminder here that every church should keep a careful eye on aspects of its life that could be regarded as its strong points. Earlier on in Acts, Luke informs his readers about the practical concern members of the Jerusalem church showed to one another: ‘There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet’ (Acts 4:34-37). The area in which the devil launched his attack was not in a weak one in the church, but in an aspect of failure in an activity in which they were very strong.
At first glance, we may assume that the devil’s tactics would be to increase a sense of disunity among the congregation. He attempts to do this often, and no doubt it was one of his aims here. Yet the account by Luke also points to another detail in the strategy. The other aspect was to silence the apostles from preaching about Christ. This had been the goal of the devil-instigated opposition of the Jewish authorities, and there must have been a suggestion from the Hellenists that the apostles do something about the methods of distribution. But if they were to get involved in that activity, they would have less time for preparing for and preaching the word of God, which of course would suit the devil fine.
Obviously the apostles were not indifferent to the needs of the widows because they suggested a plan of action. Yet they were not prepared to get involved in the remedy because it would inevitably mean that their preaching would be affected. Those called to preach cannot get involved in other worthy projects if it means that they have inadequate time to prepare for preaching and for prayer. Here we have an example of the priority the early church gave to preaching and prayer. Nothing, not even important social needs, was allowed to change that priority. And it was not merely a priority for the apostles, it was one for the whole church.