© 2000, J.W. Carter
The early church, empowered at Pentecost (Acts 2), experienced many signs and wonders. Many people were coming to faith through the testimony and ministry of the apostles and the disciples. The church numbered about 5,000 men shortly after Peter was used by God to heal the lame man at the temple gate and, in a sermon, explain the gospel to the gathered crowd whose attention had been drawn by that miracle (Acts 4:1-31). The remainder of Acts, chapter 4, describes the unity of the church that was demonstrated by generous giving to the fellowship. Many of the fellowship had needs; Why? Recall from the Pentecost experience that many of the new believers had come into Jerusalem from out of town. They lacked property and jobs. Furthermore, even the local community had many poor, and many of these had become part of the fellowship also. With the need evident in the body, the Holy Spirit led the members to share with one another.
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
What does it mean, "to be of one heart and mind"? The primary binding force in their congregation was the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is in control of our lives, how do we relate to one another?John 13:35. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
Does everyone have to agree in order to have unity in the body? (No.) How does one deal with disagreement and still maintain unity? We must remember that the basis for the unity is genuine love, not just a desire for unity. When we experience genuine love for one another we care enough for the other person to allow them a difference of opinion and all of the consequences that go with it. Most churches experience disunity over the most trivial and selfish issues. A church can experience conflict when they select the color of s new carpet if the members are not in unity. Churches have divided over such trivial issues. The unity that comes from true agape love causes us to understand that the color of the carpet is not an important enough issue to allow a seed of disunity. However, there are some issues that must be compromised: those that center around basic Biblical truths. When heresy is being spread through the fellowship, action must be taken. Other than that one circumstance, there are very few events that will create conflict in a body of believers that truly love and care for one another.
Another characteristic of the unity that comes from true agape love and also stems from each truly caring for one another, is generosity. Nobody in the congregation claimed that their possessions were their own. If not, to whom did they belong? (To God.) God has been the provider of all that we have, both for the members of the Church, and for the lost. We often give thanks for all that God has given to us, but we often become a little possessive of those things we call our own. However, God created all things, including us, and is the ultimate authority over all things, even those things that we produce. Therefore, if we have an holy understanding of the ownership of our possessions, we come to realize that God is the owner of it all, and we are merely stewards of it. God has given us these things for our management and use. We make the decisions of how those things we own will be used, and are responsible to God for those decisions.
Example: If you own an automobile, to whom does it ultimately belong? (God) If you realize that your automobile belongs to God, how would that affect your use of it? You might find that it can be used by others who do not have a vehicle. You might find that it is needed for a function that is taking place in the fellowship. Such use might get it dirty, or cause it to experience some wear and tear. However, if you really consider it Gods vehicle, those circumstances are not so important.
And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34Neither was there any among them that lacked.
Another characteristic of that agape love was a concern, not just for one another in the fellowship, but concern for those others in the community who had not yet heard or responded to the gospel. The Greek word that is rendered "great" is "mega", a term we are accustomed to using as a prefix that increases its object a million times, such as megahertz, megabytes, etc. Sometimes it is used to signify something that is huge such as a megamall. The word for "power" is "dunamis", from which we get the word, "dynamite." These words "great power" are referring to a power that is profoundly huge, a power that comes from God alone. The apostles, and presumably many of the disciples (when the context of other surrounding scriptures is taken into account), continued to tell the lost of the resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus place as the Messiah, the Savior and Lord.
As a result of this love for one another, none in the fellowship were in need. This is not a trivial statement when we consider that the church was made up of a mix of 5000 men (and their families) of various homelands and various socio-economic positions, just as the church is today. Many of them came onto town from their homelands for the Pentecost celebration, and simply stayed in Jerusalem. This could place a burden on those local members of the church, but they did not see this as a burdent at all. Rather, they were blessed by the ability God gave them to share with one another.
God had promised that if Israel kept his commands, that they would be blessed to the point that there would be no poor (Deut. 15:4-11.) If the gospel could be spread to the entire world population, and that population lived out the Holy Spirits power in their lives, there would be no poverty in the world. However, Jesus said, "the poor will always be with us." (Matthew 26:11.) The Revelation of John describes the fate of those who will not have come to Jesus. We know that the gospel will never be universally accepted in the world, but even so, we can still demonstrate to the world what true fellowship is. The early church demonstrated this, and they "found favor" with the population around them. (Acts, Chapter 2.)
For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35And laid them down at the apostles feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. 36And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, 37Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles feet.
In order to provide for those in their fellowship who had little or no other support, funds were needed to buy food, and the other basic necessities that were needed by the poor. Some of the members started to realize that they had valuable possessions that they were not using, such as land and houses, that could be sold. A member of the fellowship might realize that by selling off an acre or two of land, enough money could be raised for care for the poorer members of their fellowship for a considerable period of time. Consequently, an occasional gift would be brought to the church by members who had such possessions. We can imagine the joy they must have felt when they knew of the contribution that God had allowed them to make.
I have been blessed to be part of a church that expressed unity and joy in giving. Even though the congregation has been faithful in giving to the regular expenses of the church, it has always responded generously when a special need was made known. The true blessing of sharing is found when it is inspired by a true agape love that causes us to be genuinely concerned for one another: concerned enough to take action when a need arises.
This distribution of wealth is specifically illustrated in the life of one Joseph of Cyprus. Joseph was a Levite, one of the tribes of Israel what was not given land under the original distribution under Joshua. The other eleven tribes were to tithe to the tabernacle, or temple, in order to support the Levites who, in turn, would be the ones chosen to work under the authority of the temple. They served in the temple, and as spiritual leadership in the villages. They were much like our clergy of today. Joseph of Cyprus did own land, and as a Levite was not obligated as the others to give to the church. This sets his gift apart from the others. The act also introduces us to the man who would become well known in the growth of the early church. Apparently the Holy Spirit had given Joseph of Cyprus a dynamic gift of encouraging and supporting other Christians. He had applied that same philosophy of a ministerial calling to his interaction in the church. His gift was so dynamic that the apostles called him "Joseph, Son of Encouragement", rather than "Joseph of Cyprus." This name, "Joseph Bar-Na-bus" became so accepted as to have been shortened to "Bar-Nabus", or simply Barnabus.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, 2And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles feet. 3But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
This generosity on the part of the landowners in the fellowship provided a basis for Satan to get a foothold. These people, though sensitive to the Holy Spirit in a way that we probably are not, were still human. What do you think the poorer people thought of the landowners who were selling their land? Most likely, they were held in high regard. They were probably praised greatly by the members of the fellowship, just as we even today shower praise on members who demonstrate accomplishments. This showering of praise on one another can easily be used of Satan to empower the sin of pride in members of the fellowship. The consequences of this sin are illustrated in the experience of the church and Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias was a landowner who also sold a piece of land in order to bring the proceeds to the fellowship. However, his motivation was different. We can be reminded of the sacrifices brought to God by Cain and Abel. Abel brought his from a true heart, and Cain brought his out of resistant obligation. Cain hated God for the requirement of sacrifice, and in his jealousy of Gods acceptance of his brothers sacrifice, Cain killed Abel. In a way, Ananias was a lot like Cain. What was Ananias purpose in bringing the gift? Not all of the conversation is recorded in the book of Acts, but there is enough here to know clearly that Ananias told the Apostles that his gift included the entire proceeds from the land sale. However, he was lying, giving only a portion of it.
Who was Ananias lying to? (Peter revealed to him that he had lied to the Holy Spirit.) Have you ever been tempted to "stretch" the truth in order to obtain notoriety or respect? This was what Ananias was doing. However, his lie was not just to the apostles. He was committing a form of blasphemy by diminishing the that which belongs to God by keeping for himself, not only the proceeds from the land, but the praise and honor that was due only to God.
We must always strive to give to the Lord from a pure heart, inspired by the Holy Spirit to have a genuine love and concern for Gods Kingdom. It is through such a heart that, not only does giving produce a true blessing, it inspires our desire to give even more. We find ourselves at a point where we have no interest in anyone acknowledging our giving, because we are blessed by the true recipient of the gift, God Himself.
Sin has a consequence. If we give from wrong motives we will experience consequences. These can certainly include a lack of blessing from the giving, and a lack of motivation to continue to give what is the true amount and content that God expects. As a result, we give a minimum, and do so grudgingly. This is exactly the sin of Cain. If we are giving from such a motivation, we should turn to God in prayer and ask for His forgiveness, and ask for His Holy Spirit to help us to develop a pure concern and love for His kingdom so that we will be properly inspired to contribute to it. Ananias never had an opportunity to respond to such advice.
And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. 6And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
What was the consequence of Ananias lie? He had no possible way of knowing that his deceit would be exposed. Not only did he fail to receive the praise and honor for his gift, he was exposed as a liar and a thief. Peter never had a chance to council Ananias through the repentance and forgiveness that he needed. Ananias simply collapsed and died. What was the response of the people in the fellowship? It was the same as that which would be experienced by most: they were shocked, and realizing the consequences of Ananias sin, they were filled with fear. They had seen God work mighty signs and wonders, all for the benefit of the fellowship. This is the first recorded incident where God demonstrated such an act of judgement. Certainly, Ananias could have had a heart attack or stroke, but its timing and act was directly attached to his hearing of the exposure of his deceit.
What impact did this most likely have on the giving patterns in the fellowship? If there was any seeds of selfish giving, seeking for praise and honor by bringing offerings to the fellowship, they were just destroyed. Anyone who was even thinking about giving to receive personal attention would immediately reject the idea. The experience of Ananias was an object lesson for them; a lesson that they learned quickly. It can also be a lesson for us, that whenever we give, our gift honors God only if it is given in a spirit that is free of selfish motives. If a gift is to be offered that is intended upon bringing praise or honor to the giver, the gift should be withheld.
And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. 8And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. 9Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. 10Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. 11And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
Can God remove a sin-filled member of the fellowship through sudden death? I recently heard of a church pastor who was asked by the congregation to leave. His response was that he would only leave the church in a box, referring to his intent upon staying in that position for the rest of his life? What kind of game is this man playing? What could be the consequences of such an act? I would not be surprised to see this man die soon from some natural or "accidental" cause.
If there is any doubt of the coincidence of Ananias death, such doubt should be dispelled here. Not only did Sapphira suffer the same death, Peter prophesied it. Just as Ananias had lied about the amount received for the land, Sapphira lied also. The consequences of Ananias sin were also meted out on his wife.
When we look at the stewardship of the early church we can see some patterns that are worth knowing.
- When the people of the fellowship gave to each other out of pure motives, the ability of the church to propagate the gospel was enhanced. It is those pure motives that others see. Sometimes it is the recipient of such love who comes to seek God after such an act.
- When the people of the fellowship gave to one another they were expressing a genuine care for one another. All people have a need to be cared for, and people will often respond positively to those who demonstrate to them that they care. This mutual love drew the fellowship together in unity.
- Willingness to give is not enough. We must act. Failure to act reveals a true unwillingness to do so, exposing the sin that really controls the decision. If we ever state something like "I am willing but I cant", we are falling into this sinful trap.
- We must be careful to maintain unselfish motives in our giving. Though it is unlikely that we would suffer the fate of Ananias and Sapphira by presenting an unworthy gift, we would certainly lose the joy and peace that comes from a pure heart. It is a testimony to what the church has become when one considers that if God were to strike dead all members who gave from selfish motives, a massacre would take place. This is not Gods purpose. If we all learn from the experience of Ananias and Sapphira, their deaths have even more meaning than their lives.
- Those who try to deceive God will be judged for their hypocrisy. It is likely that the judgement will not come in sight of man, but it is certain that it will take place in sight of God. Revelation 20 describes a judgement that God will make on all of the deeds of all people.
- When we help the poor, we find that their will be a myriad of other opportunities for ministry that will result. The lost will see Gods love in action and could possibly respond. Relationships can be built that would otherwise not exist; relationships that will bless both the giver and the receiver.
Let us not forget the pure and generous giving that was demonstrated by the people in the early church and pray for the same attitude in our own.