The first preachers of the early church were the apostles and they had a problem: something that was good was threatening to displace what was best. This is recorded for us in Acts 6:1-7.
The Jerusalem church was growing at an extraordinary speed. Conversions were taking place every day, both among the local Jews as well as among the Greek-speaking Jews visiting the city from abroad. Many of the new believers were widows who had no means of material support, and their new brothers and sisters had taken on the responsibility of providing them with a daily meal. The problem was that many of them, especially among the Greek-speakers, were going hungry. The distribution system was not working. Genuinely needy people were suffering. There was growing discontent in the church, especially among the Greek-speakers. If it continued, the church would soon split.
Why was the system not working? It was because of the apostles. There are only so many hours in a day and they were perfectly clear about how to us them to the best advantage. They had drawn up a list of priorities from which they were not going to budge, even if this meant that increasing numbers of widows went hungry. There were three items on their list, which went like this:
2. Ministry of the Word
3. Everything else
There had never been so many believers as there were now. How they needed praying for! How they needed feeding from God’s word! In the apostles’ judgement, spiritual nourishment was infinitely more important than physical nourishment. Nonetheless, it was not right that widows should do hungry, just as it was not right that preachers should get distracted from their first and second priorities. But how, how, was it going to be possible to have both satisfied widows and praying preachers?
“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.’” (Acts 6:2-4, ESV)
The preachers kept their priorities, the widows got their meals, new men became actively engaged in vital ministry, church peace was restored, the Word of God spread wonderfully and the flood of conversions continued to astonish the watching world!
The apostles were as dependent upon prayer as any other preachers. They understood that it is better to default on every other responsibility than it is to neglect prayer. It even takes precedence over the ministry of the Word. Compared with prayer, preaching is only an ‘and’. It must never take first place. Prayer recognises God as God, and depends on him to do what he would not do without prayer. Prayer, and prayer alone, is the way by which the Lord’s armies call him onto the field.
True prayer stirs itself up to lay hold on God (Isaiah 64:7). This takes time, energy, faith and perseverance. It is easy to allow other things to slip in and get in the way. It is not only sinful or questionable things that provide such hindrances, but also things that are right and necessary which have been given a wrong priority. The servant of God gets sidetracked. The door to the secret place is not shut (Matt 6:6). The preacher gets caught up in his exegesis and preparation, his administration, his commitments, the needs around him, or in the actual act of preaching. He no longer knows what it is to wrestle with God and to prevail (Gen 32:28).