|RPM, Volume 17, Number 30, July 19 to July 25, 2015|
Last year about this time, I preached what is called a stewardship sermon. That is the name given for sermons which teach on the subject of giving. My stewardship sermon last year concerned tithing. We studied the texts in scripture that present tithing, trying to understand its principles and whether tithing is to be observed today. Briefly, these were the points: Tithing is giving 10% of one's income to the service of God's kingdom. Though it was a law to observe under the Old Covenant, it is no longer a law under the New Covenant. Nevertheless, it is a good practice to continue because it assures proper funding for the church, it provides us with a systematic means to give, and it brings blessing on us as givers. This year, we are going to consider the giving practice of the early church believers as presented in Luke's summary in Acts 4.
Acts 4:32-35 is a brief overview of early church life. We are looking at a time period of probably a few weeks, maybe months. This is the second summary, the first occurring in 2:42-47. Let's read the summary again.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
The first sentence sets the tone for what follows. 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. Luke is describing the extraordinary sense of unity that the early believers felt. I intentionally use the verb for feeling. The phrase heart and mind indicates that their unity went beyond an intellectual assent that they were united in their faith. They deeply experienced the feeling of a common bond in Christ.
The experience was so intense that it spilled over into the practical issue of possessions.
No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. This is an extraordinary statement; how was this sharing actually carried out? Some have thought that the early church had a communal society. That is, their homes and possessions were turned over to the church for common sharing and distribution.
That seems to square with the scenario given in 2:44-46:
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together…
When you try to envision the practice, though, it is unclear how they could have achieved a true communal life. Though they met in each other's homes, there is no indication of them sharing their homes for living space or turning their homes over to the church to then direct how the homes would be used. The statement that all believers were together refers to their meeting together in the temple courts and homes, not a common living quarters. After all, there were more than 3,000 church members. In a real communal society, a single dwelling is built to accommodate communal living or individual homes are acquired close together. There is no indication that the believers gave up possession of their homes to form a communal society. It would have been impractical to do so. The new believers already own homes in Jerusalem, and certainly in such a short period they would not have been able to sell and acquire new homes that link them together.
We don't get any sense that the apostles purchased property or arranged for believers to move into one neighborhood. Though the Christians lived together in heart and mind, they did not live physically apart from the rest of society.
Some have claimed that the Christian church practiced socialism or even communism. There was no private ownership. Possessions were shared by the group. But that is not quite the real scenario. It is true that they shared what they possessed and had everything in common, but Luke's phrase, No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, indicates what actually went on. First of all, note that the sharing applied to every possession. In a socialist society, members still have private personal possessions. You may not own your land or house, but you do possess books, pots, and other items, which you do claim to be your own. Second, and this is the most important element to note, Luke says that no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own. There was no church rule prescribing that all possessions were to be held in common. There was no manifesto of the rights of all members to have claim on the possessions of one another. Indeed, Luke does not refer to any teaching on the subject at all.
Luke is saying, "See the spirit of charity that came upon the believers. As they entered into the kingdom of Christ, they experienced a genuine love for their brothers and sisters, so much so that they regarded their own possessions as being for the good of everyone."
The sharing of all possessions expressed an attitude of each believer, not a community rule.
On the other hand, we are to understand that the attitude was put into practice. Meals were shared and no doubt possessions were as well, such as clothing and other items of necessity. The chapter 2 summary mentions how they sold possessions and goods to meet the needs of one another. And this gives us a clearer understanding of how possessions were held in common. Believers sold personal possessions to meet the needs of brothers and sisters, thinking that the value of their possessions were no longer reserved for their own ends, but for the common good of their new community.
Verses 34 and 35 describe how this actually worked out: 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Here we have major possessions. The believers did not hold a garage sale of used items they no longer used or valued; they sold land and houses. Luke probably does not mean they sold the very homes and property in which they lived or conducted business, but is referring to the more well-to-do who owned extra property, or at least property that they no longer used. I say this because, one, there is no indication of Christians having to move out of homes. Practically speaking, if that were the case, the believers would have only been adding to the burden of the Christian community by creating housing problems. Second, home ownership continued. The believers were meeting in one another's houses!
The point Luke is making is not that the believers were impoverishing themselves, but, again, that they regarded property as means to serving the community. The believers did not regard themselves as generous, but as doing what loving family members do for one another.
The distribution system, by the way, was overseen by the apostles at the beginning. It would soon prove to be an ineffective system, and the position of deacon would be created to better serve the church. This again points to the spontaneity of the giving. The apostles had not thought through a system of giving and administering church funds. The giving just happened and the administering of the funds developed through trial and error.
How did the early believers come to such a way of life? Verse 33 gives us the answer. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. Where's the answer? The power of the resurrection to which the apostles testified. God's grace anointed the believers, but it was in connection with Christ's resurrection. The believers understood that the resurrection was more than a doctrine to assent to; the power that raised Jesus was the same power that brought the Holy Spirit and which empowered them now to live fully for the cause of Jesus.
Liberal scholars theorize that the radical teaching of Jesus led the early believers to practice their self-sacrificing lifestyle. Jesus' teaching of love and social action so transformed the believers that they attributed to him supernatural powers of resurrection to explain his impact on them. In reality, it is the resurrection that transformed them so that they naturally and gladly adopted Jesus' kingdom lifestyle.
At heart, Christianity is not a religion of ideals. It is not a philosophy. It is a religion born of the transforming power of Jesus Christ's redemption. Our lives are changed, not because Jesus has a way of making us agree with his principles, but because the power by which he conquered death comes into those whom he has called to salvation.
Let's consider now the implications for us in the matter of giving. What does this passage teach us individually and as a church about giving?
First of all, we ought to have a mindset for giving. Again, the impression Luke gives us is that the early believers spontaneously gave to meet the needs of one another. The apostles are teaching, and surely they must have taught about giving, but there is no record of it at this stage. It seems that giving rose more out of a natural mindset that they ought to be looking out for each other.
This is one of the key signs of whether one has become a follower of Christ. The one who has experienced the saving grace of Christ, not only becomes conscious of God but of his or her neighbors, especially those who are also in the family of God. Becoming a Christian, far from making a person self-centered focusing on his personal peace with God, leads to a focus on the needs of others. The Christian becomes more, not less, aware of people and their needs, and it leads to a natural desire to give whatever he has the power to give. It may be money; it may be possessions; it may be time and attention.
Whatever the gift may be, the mature believer is attentive to the needs of the church family.
How attentive are you? Do you know the needs of the church? Do you pay attention to the reports on how well giving is meeting the budget? Do you know the widows in the church and their needs? Do you know the families in the church — the names and needs of the children and the help the mothers could use? Do you get beyond the "how are you doing" greeting and find out what how your church brothers and sisters really are doing? Giving starts with caring enough to know the needs.
Secondly, we ought to give generously. That is clearly the trait Luke is bringing out in his description of the early church. That sentence in 2:45 — Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need — is not the description of a people who looked through attics and back closets to unload what they had no use for. The example of Ananias and Sapphira illustrate the value of what the people were selling. In Acts 5:1,2 we read: Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.
Ananias and Sapphira illustrate a couple who are not generous, but try to appear to be. The very fact that they sell some property and give money indicates that this was a common practice to emulate. Apparently, to keep up with the Joneses in the church, they felt they needed to sell property, rather than acquire more. And apparently, the property was rather valuable, enough so that they hated to part with all of the profit. Indeed, it was valuable enough that they thought they could get away with giving only a portion, while seeming to give full value.
How much is generous? It is difficult to set a standard, but I'll offer one. When the world — i.e. your unbelieving neighbors — begin to question your judgment, you are reaching the generous stage. We have to be careful here. I know of one marriage broken, one of the reasons being that the husband too quickly gave away possessions while the family itself was scraping to meet essential needs. That's why I am not enthusiastic about emotional appeals for what may be good causes. Sensitive Christians will give what they ought not to, all because their emotions, or rather their guilt, were stirred. Nevertheless, what should be evident of the Christian in general is that he gives more of his money, talent, and self than the non-Christian.
The next two lessons speak to the motive or reason for giving. One, we ought to give out of a sense of unity and belonging. That is what is meant by verse 32: 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Like the early believers we ought to feel united to one another, not simply recognize that we hold the same beliefs. We ought to feel that we belong to the family of Christ, and as members in a local church we ought to feel that we belong here — to this church and to each other.
That's hard to do — to keep the feeling of belonging. It is hard enough in a family. How much more difficult then to feel a unity and belonging in a church where people come and go, come from different backgrounds, have families of their own and other groups to which they belong? No, it is not easy, but the very act of giving helps to nurture the spirit of belonging. When people give and receive out of a sense of belonging to one another, they nurture that bond.
You know what I mean. I am not talking about people who give to make others feel indebted to them, or people who take advantage of other Christians making them feel obligated to give to them. But in a church where people give because they care for one another as though members of a family, and where people receive willingly because they know they do belong to each other, in that kind of a church the bond of unity grows stronger through each act of giving.
Do you want to feel closer to others in the congregation? Then give. I hear comments like, "I don't feel close to people in the other service, to the older folks, to the younger folks, to the kids, to (fill in the blank). The solution is easy. Give hospitality: invite them over or out. Give a mother time out of the home; give a father help with a repair project; give a child some attention. You will then feel close.
Give money. There are people sacrificing to go to a missions conference; another person is trying to minister through music; a number of people would like to go on short-term missions trips but assume that they can't afford to; others are simply trying to pay bills. For some of these causes, you can give through the church; for others you are on your own. But if you give, you will find yourself growing closer to those who benefit.
The other principle we learn from out text is that we ought to give out of the joy and power of our redemption. I get this from verse 33: With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. We give because of the grace of God working within us. I am being careful how I word this. We do not give in response to the grace of God; we give empowered by the grace of God.
Do you see the difference? Oftentimes we are told that we ought to give in gratitude to what God has done for us. He, after all, gave his Son for us; we then ought to give something back in return. We ought to feel bad if we hold on to our possessions. But that was not the attitude of the early Christians. They did not give because they felt obligated; they gave because of the joy of giving. That joy came from the grace of God and the power of the resurrection.
We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, as we are told in Ephesians 2:10. All that means is that we are created in Christ to do what we were originally created by God to do — to joyously glorify our God through pouring out our lives in service to him. And our God takes delight in our serving one another. It is not an obligation he places on us; it is a joyous privilege that he gives us the power to do.
In true Christian giving, we are not paying God back for anything; we are not doing anyone favors. We are joining in the joy for which God created us and Jesus Christ redeemed us. We are joining in the activity the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit delight in doing themselves. That is a wonderful privilege that God has given to us.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor. If you would like to discuss this article in our online community, please visit the RPM Forum.|
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