Tonight we are to think about the early church, when it had grown, in what seems a short space of time, to 5000 men - and you have to add on to that women and children as well. That was remarkable.
JPC has a vision of 5000 all in and over a much longer time. But with God nothing is impossible, as these early Christians were discovering. So on these Sunday evenings this session we, I trust, will learn from the experience of the church in the period immediately after the Ascension of Christ as it is recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles. Last week Ian Garrett gave us something by way of a recap of the early chapters of Acts that we looked at this time last year. And we left off (as those of you that were here may remember) at chapter 4 verse 31. So tonight we come to Acts 4 verse 32 and my headings are, after some words of introduction, first, THE ATTITUDE OF THE BELIEVERS; secondly, THE ARRANGEMENTS FOR GIVING; and, thirdly, THE ACTION OF BARNABAS.
By way of introduction let me ask you this question. How did this tiny group of people, who had lived alongside Jesus for three or so years, seen him die, seen him alive again in his resurrection body and witnessed his Ascension – how did this tiny group attract so many people so quickly? Well, on the one hand, we can note three un-repeatable factors. First, there was the Day of Pentecost itself when the new age of the Holy Spirit began. Secondly, there was the actual preaching by Apostles who were eye-witnesses of the risen Jesus. Thirdly, there were the early Apostolic miracles – which, whatever other miracles did and may occur, were unique. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 verse 12 there are ... "… things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles [presumably they did not mark other people]." Yes, the Day of Pentecost, Apostolic preaching and Apostolic miracles were unique and unrepeatable. However, on the other hand, there were four repeatable factors that led to the growth of the church.
First, the call to repentance and faith. At the end of his Pentecost sermon, Peter called on his audience of 1000s to:
"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2.38).
Is that call relevant to anyone here tonight? That call is certainly to be repeated. Perhaps you've been coming to JPC for sometime now. You have been asking questions; and you know now that they have been answered. Well, be definite. Publicly make that commitment to Christ and be baptized or renew your vows.
Secondly, there were the Apostles' teaching and the fellowship enjoyed by the early believers. Back in chapter 2 of Acts we read in verse 42:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship."
We may not have the Apostles themselves, with their experience of the risen Jesus or their miracles. But the essential content of their teaching - what they taught - is there for us in the Bible. That is why the Bible is so vital. And today we can also have fellowship (or our meeting together) that is Apostolic. That is when it is based on the Bible - the Apostolic book.
Then, thirdly, there was persecution. You can read about the start of how the early Christians began to be opposed and then attacked for their faith in the first part of Acts 4. And today in the 21st century you, too, can be opposed and attacked for your faith in Christ.
And, fourthly, there was prayer - prayer that focused on the greatness of God and his control over all who were opposing the gospel. You read about that in the verses immediately preceding our passage tonight. So, repentance and public commitment; Apostolic teaching and fellowship; persecution; and prayer were all contributing to the growth of the early church.
However, one thing in addition was also necessary in those early days – and it is still necessary. What is that? Answer – the meeting of financial needs. It is, of course, all part of "fellowship"; and that is most obvious when it is meeting individual needs. The meeting of needs is first mentioned in Acts 2 and verses 44-45:
"All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
And maybe because that is so important it is mentioned again and expanded here in Acts 4 and our passage for tonight. That repetition actually says a lot. Among other things it says that the Bible is not shy of talking about money and giving. Jesus certainly was not, as we heard in our Gospel reading from Matthew 6. Jesus said there that how you spend your money is a real sign of your spiritual commitment - "where your treasure is there will your heart be also." And he said, "You cannot serve both God and Money." He also said, "Do not worry … But seek first his [your heavenly Father's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [the things money can buy] will be given to you as well." On that basis and without being legalistic, later in Matthew's Gospel Jesus endorsed the Old Testament principle of giving 10 percent for God's work. And Mark and Luke report some people giving much more than 10 percent. But we today are so different.
Al Stewart, an Anglican Bishop in Sydney, Australia, says that, unlike Jesus and the New Testament church, we don't like talking about money. We don't challenge each other to examine both our hearts and our cheque books regularly. And he says this:
"After 15 years as a pastor, I've found it much easier to talk to men about their sex lives than about their finances."
Well, tonight we have to talk about money. And so much by way of introduction. Let's now look at Acts 4.32 and following.
First, THE ATTITUDE OF THE BELIEVERS
Look at verses 32 and 34:
"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."
Here was remarkable giving –
"they shared everything they had."
But what does Luke (the author of Acts) suggest led to this generosity and what resulted from it? Well, what led to this generosity was the attitude (or the mind set) of the believers. First, there was a unity of "heart and mind" (verse 32). No church can grow if there is significant disunity. And if there is disunity, generous giving will be unlikely. So you then ask, what is the secret of unity? Ephesians chapter 4, a great chapter in the Bible on Christian unity, gives you an answer. For a moment keep you finger in Acts 4 and turn to Paul's letter to the Ephesians and chapter 4. Yes, this chapter teaches that for unity there has to be doctrinal maturity among the believers. People can't be (verse 14) like …
"… infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming."
But supremely necessary for unity is being more and more Christ like in your own individual character. If you are sound as a bell theologically but you are not "living a life worthy of the calling you have received" (verse 1) forget it. There will be little unity. Look at verses 2 and 3:
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."
Unity takes effort and it takes character. Can you measure yourself up against this five-fold "unity check list"? One, "be completely humble" - literally "be with all humbleness of mind" - that means being teachable yourself and recognizing the work and value of other people. Two, "be gentle". Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, said this word referred to the "mean between being too angry and never being angry at all". So it is not a word for the weak; but for the gentleness of the strong - people who keep their strength under control. Three, "be patient" - with aggravating people. And they are there in churches! Four, "bearing with one another". We all have faults. So we all have to tolerate one another. And, five, do all "in love" - this is Christian "love", which is not sloppy or sentimental, but embraces all these other four characteristics - being humble, being gentle, being patient and bearing with one another.
So, back again to Acts 4 and the early believers – they had attitudes and characters that led to a "unity of heart and mind". And this led to their giving.
Secondly, there was an attitude that meant people sat light to material possessions. They were not materialistic, as we would say today. Look at the next part of verse 32:
"No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own."
With regard to "possessions" there was an attitude of stewardship. What does that mean? Well, it is a recognition that God has given you control of the things in your possession. So you are to steward them and not someone else. However, you are to have an attitude that they are not your own but God's. As the Psalmist says,
"The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Psalm 24.1).
Or as God says, through the Psalmist, in Psalm 50 verse 10:
"every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills."
So God is the ultimate owner of all you have. You, however, are the steward. And you are to steward your possessions in accordance with God's will and purposes, not your own selfish interests or instincts. This was the attitude of these early Christians. And it led to their wanting to care for those in need as the last part of verse 32 says:
"they shared everything they had."
And the result was, one, verse 33:
"With great power the Apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus."
Inevitably this community of generous people was a great advert for the gospel. And, two, the result also was, as the end of verse 33 says:
"much grace was upon them all."
Grace speaks of being positive in a God-given way. These believers were the very opposite to people who murmur and complain. They had God-inspired, hopeful, positive attitudes. So much, then, for the attitudes of these believers.
Secondly, THE ARRANGEMENTS FOR GIVING
Look at verses 34-35:
"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."
Many people misunderstand what was happening. This was not a primitive form of communism. You see, the tenses here in the original are not straight past tenses but continuous past tenses – literally they "were selling, they were bringing money, they were putting it at the apostles' feet." So when you repented and were baptized, you didn't sell up everything and bring the proceeds and all your savings to the church treasurer, for good and all. No! You kept control of your own property and released it when necessary. That is crystal clear from the next chapter and the case of Ananias and Sapphira. There Peter says to Ananias, referring to his property (chapter 5 verse 4):
"Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?"
So you see how things worked. The believers believed that they were only stewards of their money and possessions. They believed their money and possessions were ultimately God’s and should be used according to his will, not according to their own selfish interests and instincts. As a result of these beliefs they were then meeting needs. Their hearts and minds were right first. Then their cheque books (in modern terms) followed their hearts and minds.
This is where the modern world has got it so wrong. Following on from Marx there is a belief - now held by political parties in the non-Marxist world - that what is foundational to the good of human societies are not beliefs but simply economic arrangements. But the Bible says, “No!”. It sees healthy economies coming from right attitudes and beliefs. Where those attitudes and beliefs are wrong, you will not get a healthy society – economically or in other ways. Economic arrangements are important. But you will only get the economics right when you get the hearts and minds of men and women right. The problems with society are not fundamentally because either it has a more capitalist system or a more centralist system. The problems come from the human heart. It is from the human heart, says Jesus, that come …
"… sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark 7.21-22).
So to address external economic problems and changing economic systems without addressing the problems of the human heart is like trying to mend a puncture by washing the wheel. These early believers, however, got their hearts and minds right. That then led to economic needs being met. I read a social survey this week that showed that:
“the most religious [and these were mostly Christians] were more likely to feel a sense of dedication to their work (97% v 66%); and find their work contributes to society (91% v 53%); and more likely to find their work interesting and rewarding (92% v 68%); and more likely to believe financial security can be obtained by hard work (88% v 70%); and much more likely to say they would reconcile marital problems at all costs rather than seek divorce (60% v 33%).”
That last point is hugely significant as the breakdown of the married family is correlated with negative economic consequences and so, on average, leads to poverty rather than riches. I remember the head of Christian Community Services in the, then, Diocese of Mount Kenya East – a remarkable organization with health care and agricultural projects (and all the things the world likes to see happening in terms of Aid) – I remember him saying of the area of Kenya we support at JPC, "you know, what this area really needs is a good dose of Christian morality to solve its social problems." That is why preaching the Gospel is so vital – the gospel of forgiveness for sin and power for new life.
If you want to help the poor, yes, you must give money; yes, you must work for the right economic arrangements. But in the context of doing that, make sure that, like the Apostles, you "continue to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus". That, then, brings us to our third heading and ...
Thirdly, THE ACTION OF BARNABAS.>
Here is an example of these arrangements at work. Look at verses 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."
What do we learn from Barnabas? Four things - and very briefly.
First, the church needs rich men (and women) who will steward their wealth for the Lord and his work. Barnabas certainly seems to have been well-off. Not only did he have some property. His family also had a large house in Jerusalem (compare Acts 12.12 with Col 4.10).
Secondly, Barnabas was sacrificial in his giving. We read in 1 Corinthians 9.6 that later on he had to join Paul in tent making to support himself when evangelising. So at that later stage it seems he no longer had private means. Some could say that the case of Barnabas proves that this policy of selling off property was foolish, as it would inevitably reduce the Jerusalem church to penury. However, as has been well pointed out, most of the property that was turned into cash and then used, was soon a total loss to the new owners. For in AD 70 Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Far from this policy being foolish, the early Christians got value out of their property when they could. And this helped the church get off the ground at a critical point in its history.
Thirdly, Barnabas was an encourager. He was nick-named "Son of Encouragement". Two of the other early church leaders were nick-named "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3.17). Yes, you need those sorts of people, too. But you certainly need your Barnabases. Barnabas was positive. True, he was so positive that when there was a conflict he found it difficult in being in a minority of one. You read about that in Galatians chapter 2 verse 13. But he encouraged Paul when Paul was first converted and helped him get integrated into the Christian fellowship (9.26-27). What a vital step that was! Do you take steps to help integrate newcomers to JPC? Who knows, you may be helping someone who one day may be a great Christian leader. Thank God for all rich, sacrificial givers like Barnabas who are encouragers and not discouragers.
And, fourthly, Barnabas saw the importance not only of giving but also of preaching the gospel. You will discover as we read on in Acts that Barnabas was Paul’s first missionary assistant.
I must conclude.
This Bible passage has made us challenge ourselves about our money and our giving. Next week we will learn how not everyone in the church gives as they ought to give. And it is a fact that often the richer give less proportionately than the poorer. These Jerusalem Christians were poorer – because of famines and no doubt because of opposition and so discrimination in the work-place. But they were generous when they could be. So they challenge us today. And remember three things.
One, remember the context for this generosity was unity of heart and mind; a lack of materialism; and believing that God owned all - we are just stewards.
Two, remember that financial arrangements are secondary. What you believe about money and wealth conditions your generosity and your economics.
And, three, remember Barnabas – rich, sacrificial, an encourager but with a heart for evangelism.