At a busy intersection not far from where we once lived a billboard boasted, “WE’RE A CHURCH THAT DOESN’T PREACH MONEY!” Funny. My Bibles says a lot about money.
In fact, Luke’s second summary of early church life (4:32-37) is almost all about money. That’s especially significant because many months (maybe even a year or so) has passed since his last summary (2:42-47).
Church Life Summary (4:32-35)
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. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 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.
The first sentence is key to this summary. All the believers were one in heart and mind. Commentator William J. Larkin Jr. writes, This phrase masterfully brings together both the Greek ideal of friendship–“a single soul [mia psyche] dwelling in two bodies” (Aristotle in Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers 5.20)–and the Old Testament ideal of total loyalty (1 Chron 12:39–referring to the devotion of David’s band of men in the wilderness).
I caught glimpses of unity like that over 44 years of pastoring. Sadly, I also saw painful occasions where we suffered the opposite in shameful church splits. Most of the time, though, our church unity registered somewhere in between.
This Acts’ oneness was more than a km-ba-ya moment around a campfire. It was lived out by the whole church. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” with the result that there “were no needy persons among them.” This was especially significant, because Jerusalem’s economy was shaky at best, the country as a whole suffered through several famines, members from Galilee and other places were away from their source of income and social and economic persecution added to their poverty (Acts 24:17; Romans 15:26). This sacrificial love enabled the apostles to testify to the Lord Jesus’ resurrection “with great power.”
How, I wonder, did the apostles pull 5000 members into such unity? Fundraising projects? Car-salesman-like persuasion? It wasn’t the apostles at all. It was the gracious work of God the Holy Spirit (“much grace was upon them all”). Author Luke comments: “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.” In other words, they gave freely having been moved by the grace of God the Holy Spirit.
That’s extraordinary. More accurately, that’s miraculous. Who does that? Maybe a multi-billionaire who can write off such gifts as “charitable giving” on his taxes. But these people weren’t rich and enjoyed no tax deductions. Without question, this was the result of Spirit- empowered, grace-produced oneness. In passing, Luke identifies one example . . .
A Living Example (4:36,37).
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.
Why did the apostles nickname Joseph “Son of Encouragement”? Perhaps in part because his Spirit-inspired gift brought heavy-hearted people hope. But there was two other people whose gift brought a distinctly different result . . .
Fatal Fraud (5:1-11).
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 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. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Even though this narrative is pretty straightforward, a few observations . . .
—Apparently these two wanted the praise without the price.
—I think the Holy Spirit revealed Ananias’ deceit to Peter.
—Satan was the “power” behind Ananias’ sin.
—Ananias’ lie was primarily to God the Holy Spirit (who was present in the believers), only secondarily to the apostles.
—Death seems an extreme penalty for what we today call “spin”. But spoken in God’s presence, it’s a capital crime.
—The phobos (Greek) that seized everyone was not “reverence” (Romans 3:18), but “terror”.
Three Warnings & One Reward
First warning: God punishes sin. So, don’t mess with God. He is to be feared, not casually dismissed. The Good News part of this warning is that when Jesus died, he was punished for the sins of all who would believe in him.
Second warning: God sets the rules. We judge Ananias’ sin as small or even shrewd. But life isn’t our “game”, it’s God’s. And in the Bible he instructed us how it’s to be “played”.
Third warning: The Spirit may move us out of our comfort zone. Not to spotlight ourselves, but to point people to Jesus.
One reward: We can bless others with our money and possessions. Not only will that meet their needs and bring glory to the Lord; it will give us great joy that can come no other way.
Fill us with the Holy Spirit, Lord,
so we will be radical givers
as you have been to us.