Wouldn’t it be amazing if no one was poor? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone had enough? The first Christians found a way to get there! Let’s look at what they did, and perhaps we can make strides to eradicating poverty in our communities.
To do that we need to move on to the second passage that will help us understand Acts 5:1-11. The first passage was Acts 2:42-47, which we discussed in the previous post. There we learned that the earliest Christians were selling off properties to help those in need. Really wonderful generosity, right? Before we look at the second passage that will help us understand Acts 5:1-11, I want to ask, how long did the early church keep practicing the selling possessions and helping those in need? Maybe they only did this common property stewardship thing for just a short time. They couldn’t possibly keep that up, could they?
Well, open a Bible to Acts chapter 4, verse 32, our second passage. Between Acts 2 and Acts 4, some time has passed, but we don’t know how much. Was it a couple months? A couple years? We don’t know. My guess is that it was between 6-18 months. And what do we read in Acts 4:32?
“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.”
It sounds like now they are even more committed to this than they were in Acts 2! Back in Acts 2 the writer mentions that they were together and had everything in common. But here in Acts 4 we have what appears to be an even stronger statement: no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own. They shared everything. It wasn’t forced on them. They were choosing to do this based on the teachings of Jesus. It wasn’t a government program. It wasn’t a political philosophy. Instead it was a voluntary choice to be part of a community of love.
But I still imagine that there had to be some people doubting this idea of seeing your possessions as not your own. Some people had to be uncomfortable with this, right? Or is it possible that I am just thinking about it like that because it seems so radical, so different from us. Maybe it shouldn’t be radical. What they did lines up pretty nicely with Jesus’ teaching to the rich young ruler to sell all you have and give to the poor, and it really expresses his sacrificial love very well.
And what’s more, look at the difference it makes in Acts 4:34-37:
“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 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Wow! The result of their love for one another was that every need was met. Poverty was eradicated. That’s astounding. Remember, this is the church the writer is talking about. He is not talking about the city of Jerusalem or the nation of Israel or Rome. It is very possible that there were still needy persons in the wider community. We don’t know for sure, but I would say it is likely. But in the church? There were no needy persons among them because those who had means did not see their possessions as they own. Instead they saw their possessions as God’s property to be used to benefit their brothers and sisters in need.
Acts 4:34 tells us that it happened “from time to time” meaning that this selling and giving wasn’t compulsory. It was voluntary. It didn’t happen all the time, but from time to time, giving us the idea that it was as-needed. There is a sense that those who had houses and lands were on the ready, so to speak. They did not see their possessions as their own, such that they were ready at a moment’s notice to liquidate their possessions, get the money and lay it at the apostles’ feet so that it could be used to benefit those in need.
That is awesome. What can it look like for us to think like that, to choose to be generous like that? This kind of generosity is not only applicable to people with multiple homes and lands. It can apply to any of us who have lots of extra clothing, cars, gadgets, savings accounts, food, extra rooms, you name it. Use it for the Kingdom! Use it to benefit those in need. Choose to use it for God. None of it is yours anyway.
“Are you saying, Joel, that I might not be able to enjoy life like I used to? Are you saying it is wrong to take vacations, to own multiple properties, to have hobbies, or many other typical American activities, that we can enjoy because of what our American life makes possible?”
I’m not saying that. I’m not saying that God is socialist or communist and wants you to be miserable. Not at all. Instead God wants you to experience a deeper joy, a fulfillment that vacations and properties and hobbies and shopping and cell phones and Netflix can never give us. Sure those things do feel really great for a time. There is a time and season for them. In Ecclesiastes we read that we should “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” The writer’s point is that there is a time for celebrating, for joy, and partying and feasting. What I’m saying is that there is a deeper joy.
We see this joy in the early church through their amazing commitment to love one another, consistent with what they learned from Jesus and with how they watched him live, and they found the deepest satisfaction in living that out. Generosity releases us from the bonds of materialism and consumerism, and frees to live a life of mutual love and interdependence in the community of a church family. Therein is found the deeper joy.
Still I wonder if some people were not convinced. Isn’t possible that at least some people in the church having trouble with all this generosity? Well, there were some struggling with this, and we meet them in the next post.