Deacon. What do you think of when you hear that word? Deacon.
Someone with authority in your church? Someone who serves communion in your church? Someone who serves in a particular office in your church?
We begin a new series today on an important topic of leadership and service in the Church. We pray this will be a blessing to you and your church.
You may find it helpful to take a piece of paper and write the word ‘Deacon’ at the top of the page. Go down a couple of spaces and write the word ‘Relationship’ on the left side of the page and ‘Role’ on the right side of the page.
Underneath the word ‘Relationship,’ write the word ‘servant.’ We’ll add other words under ‘Role’ as we go through this study.
What Is A Deacon?
The word deacon is a transliteration of the Greek word διάκονος. It means “servant, minister,” but comes from a combination of words (diá konis) that mean “thoroughly dust, raising dust by hastening.” The word was understood in ancient times for someone who moved quickly to complete an errand or task for someone. They would literally “kick up dust” in accomplishing the task. They were in a hurry to do the bidding of their master.
That’s important to remember. The idea of a διάκονος is of someone moving quickly and efficiently on an errand. They are serving by accomplishing tasks appointed to them by another person or persons. The word διάκονος is connected to a person’s work (tasks, service).
The first time we see the word διάκονος used in the New Testament is Matthew 20:26. Here’s the context:
And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.Matthew 20:24-28
This response from Jesus came about because the mother of James and John asked Jesus to grant that her sons would sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in His Kingdom. She was seeking special ‘roles’ or ‘positions’ for her sons in the Messianic Kingdom.
Jesus responded to her and her sons that they didn’t know what they were asking. Jesus asked James and John if they were able to drink the cup that He was about drink and be baptized with the baptism that He was going to be baptized with and both answered, “we are able.” Jesus famously replied —
You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.Matthew 20:23
In addition to using the word διάκονος, Jesus also used the word δοῦλος (slave) –
And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.
A δοῦλος was a bond-slave, meaning they were owned by someone else. A δοῦλος had no personal ownership rights unless they were granted those rights by the person who owned them. The word δοῦλος is connected to a person’s master.
Then Jesus said – “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” The words served and serve in Matthew 20:28 are the verb διακονέω, which derive from the same word used as the noun for deacon – διάκονος. Jesus placed Himself in the same role as a servant who was quickly accomplishing an errand/task for someone else.
Who could send the eternal Son of God to complete a task? We know from other things Jesus said in the Gospels that He was doing the will of His Heavenly Father. You could say that Jesus was the first deacon. He did not come from Heaven to earth “to be served, but to serve” – διακονέω.
That’s helpful to see in the Gospels because of what Paul wrote about Jesus in his letter to the Philippians —
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.Philippians 2:5-8
You can add the words “form of God” and “equal with God” under the right column – Role. Jesus, who said He was a servant to do His Father’s will, was also “equal with God.”
The Greek word for bondservant is δοῦλος, the same word Jesus used in Matthew 20. Jesus is “equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation.” The Greek word κενόω means without recognition, deprived of content. That’s what Jesus did for His disciples and He called on them to do the same.
Jesus put these things into a wonderful context as He was teaching the multitudes and His disciples. He warned them not do what the Pharisees and Sadducees did. Here’s what Jesus told them they should do —
But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.Matthew 23:8-12
You can add the words ‘Teacher” and “the Christ” under the right column – Role. Jesus, who said He was a servant to do His Father’s will, also had specific roles on earth – “your Teacher, the Christ.”
Jesus used the word διάκονος (deacon) when He said “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus called on all people who followed Him to obey His teachings and serve others.
Here’s what Jesus said in John 12 –
But Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.John 12:23-26
You can add the words ‘the Son of Man” under the right column – Role. Jesus, who said He was a servant to do His Father’s will, also has the title role of Son of Man. Jesus called Himself by that title dozen of times in the Gospels.
The word “serves” in verse 26 is διακονέω. The word “servant” is διάκονος. Jesus was saying to His disciples that if anyone wants to serve Him, they should follow Him. Wherever Jesus is, there His servant (deacon) would be also. If anyone serves (διακονέω) Jesus, God the Father will honor him. The word “honor” is τιμάω and means assign value in the sense of personal esteem. God the Father values (esteems) highly those who follow His Son.
Jesus served His Father and asked His followers to serve Him. God the Father honors those who serve God the Son. The relationship Jesus has with the Father and with us and the relationship the Father has with Jesus and with us are unique.
Deacons in the New Testament
While it may seem unusual to think of Jesus as a deacon, I’d like you to think of Him that way when He was on earth. He made Himself of no reputation. He didn’t come to be served but to serve. Yes, Jesus was Lord while He was on earth, but He was also a deacon. He came to “serve” (διακονέω) and He served well. He accomplished the task His Father gave Him.
What was Jesus’ task? To preach the Gospel and die on the Cross – “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
Jesus told His disciples (the Twelve Apostles) that they were to be deacons, so we can add all of them to the list.
Jesus told the multitudes that they should be deacons (servants), so we can add all followers of Christ to the list.
Angels are also said to have served (διακονέω) Jesus while He was on earth (Matthew 4:11), so we can add angels to the list of those who served in the New Testament.
Even earthly rulers are called deacons (διάκονος) in Romans 13:4.
- All followers of Jesus
- Earthly rulers
When Not To Serve
This might surprise you, but there is a time when a Christian should not serve. When and why? Let’s look at what the apostles said in Acts 6 –
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.Acts 6:1-2
The word “serve” is διακονέω. The apostles said it was not desirable that they should “leave” the Word of God “and serve tables.” They made a decision not to serve in one way because it kept them from serving God and accomplishing the task Jesus had given them.
The apostles had to choose between two good and needful things:
- “the daily distribution” for the Hellenist widows v. 1
- “prayer and to the ministry of the word” v. 4
The apostles were not able to accomplish both tasks, so they came up with a brilliant solution. They would enlist the help of other servants to accomplish the task –
- “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” v 3
- “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” v 4
The apostles’ decision worked out quite well –
And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.Acts 6:5-7
The seven chosen men served the Hellenist widows and accomplished their task (χρεία). The apostles prayed and ministered the Word and accomplished their task. I call that a win-win!
The seven men chosen in Acts 6:5 are often thought of as the first Church deacons. Were they and is that how we should understand the role of deacons in the 21st century Church? We’ll look deeper in the next part of our special study.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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