Acts 4:32-37

As we move along in our series of sermons from Acts, it is important to remember where we have been, where we are going, and what the theme of the book is.

Luke wrote his gospel to Theophilus to give him an account of the earthly ministry of Jesus. In the second part of his story, he wrote to Theophilus to give him an account of the continuing ministry of Jesus through his disciples. Jesus came to establish his kingdom on earth and the work to expand his kingdom continues in Acts.

This work of God stirred up opposition from the devil who fights to repulse the advance of God’s kingdom.

This is why John Stott said we should read the book of Acts alongside the book of Revelation. Acts tells us what happened on earth and Revelation tells us what is happening in the supernatural world as the kingdom of God advances.

Stott points out that the devil is depicted in Revelations 12 as an enormous red dragon and is aided by two grotesque monsters and a lewd prostitute. The monsters and the prostitute represent three of the devil’s weapons: persecution, moral compromise, and distraction from preaching and prayer which allows false teaching to rise.

The book of Acts tells the story of the kingdom of God making advances in the known world, moving from Jerusalem to Samaria and then to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

Peter and John healed a man born lame, preached a sermon to the crowd that gathered, and the number of followers of Jesus grew to about 5,000 men, not including women and children.

The devil fought back with persecution against this dramatic advance of the kingdom of God. Peter and John were arrested, threatened, and warned not to speak out about Jesus anymore.

They resisted and prayed with the other believers that God would enable them to speak out about Jesus with boldness. The threats of the Sanhedrin fell away like water on a duck’s back.

Now, in Acts 5, a second weapon of the devil was brought into play, moral compromise. In particular, a married couple in the church tried to deceive the church into thinking they were more generous than they were.

Luke begins the telling of this story by writing a summary of the early church with a focus on sharing their possessions with those in need. He illustrates this with a gift from Barnabas to the church and then, next week, we will come to the account of Ananias and Sapphira who tried to get the honor and glory of giving money to the church without having to make too much of a sacrifice.

There are two summaries in Acts of what the first church was like. They are found in Acts 2 and in Acts 4 and there are some similarities between them. Each one comes after Peter preached a sermon and there was a rich response. After his sermon on Pentecost, 3,000 were added to the church. After his sermon in the temple, the number of men in the church grew to about 5,000 – not including the women and children in the church. After this, the second summary of the church is presented.

In the Acts 2 summary which followed Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, Luke writes that the community of followers of Jesus:

  1. Were devoted to teaching
  2. Were devoted to fellowship
  3. Were devoted to sharing meals together
  4. Were devoted to prayer
  5. Were in awe of wonders and signs
  6. had everything in common
  7. Sold property and possessions to give to those in need
  8. Met every day in the temple courts
  9. Shared meals in their homes
  10. Praised God and enjoyed the favor of all people
  11. The Lord added daily to the number of those who were being saved.

Now, in Luke’s summary after Peter’s sermon in the Temple and after the church prayed in response to the threats of the Sanhedrin, there is a much more specific focus.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

As you can see, the description of the church is much more focused.

  1. They were united, one in heart and mind (although what follows shows they were not all united in heart and mind).
  2. They did not view their possessions as their own.
  3. With great power the apostles continued to testify. (This is a reference to wonders and signs that accompanied the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of Jesus.)
  4. When there was a need, they shared what they had with others.

This summary is clearly setting the ground for the next account in Luke’s telling the story of the early church.

After the summary he introduces us to Barnabas who will be mentioned twenty times in Acts. Barnabas sold a piece of land he owned and gave the proceeds to the church.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

And then Luke follows this positive example of Barnabas sharing what he had with others with the main part of this account, the actions of Ananias and Sapphira. The mention of Barnabas selling a field and giving the money from the sale to the apostles is given to contrast with the actions of Ananias and Sapphira.

We will come to the account of Ananias and Sapphira next Sunday – not an easy text to preach from.

For now, I want to focus on what the text says about sharing what we have with others, holding all things in common.

In Luke’s first summary of the church in Acts 2 he writes,
All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

In the second summary in Acts 4 he writes,
No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.

If you are like me, you are uncomfortable in reading these verses. I say that the things I have belong to God, and I share at least some things I have with others, but I also hold on to what I have.

I don’t own a home or a field I could sell to give money to the church, but I am aware that I have more nice things in our home than some others in our church have. Annie and I take an annual vacation to the US (but not this year) and most years another vacation to Thailand to see our two daughters and their families (again, not this year). I am very much aware that there are those in our church who do not get to see their families for years at a time. I am very much aware that there are those in our church who do not have the resources to take a vacation.

So, once again, I am uncomfortable when I read these verses and many other verses in the Bible that talk about sharing with those who have needs.

So I, and perhaps you, and certainly many others, struggle with this. You can tell that this is a difficult text because Christians have tried to modify the intensity of this story. We try to weaken the example set by the first church because the teaching is too radical for us. Christians do the same thing with the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The teaching is too radical so Christians try to soften the impact of what Jesus taught so we can feel comfortable with his teaching.

Scholars writing commentaries on Acts have come up with ways to weaken the power of these verses in Acts 4. Some call this the “Jerusalem experiment” and it is viewed as a failed experiment. One theory is that the communal living in the Jerusalem church where everyone shared what they had with others weakened the financial strength of the community. The Jerusalem church expected Jesus to return soon so there was no reason to maintain financial security because everything was soon going to be left behind. People shared freely with each other with the consequence that they had noting to sustain them when the economy of Jerusalem suffered.

As a consequence, this theory goes, when there was a famine Paul had to arrange for a collection to be taken up among the Gentile churches to support the Jerusalem church that did not have the resources to take care of themselves.

But Luke gives no hint of this in his telling the story of the early church. There is nothing in Luke’s account of the early church which indicates, in any way, that the Jerusalem church had made a mistake in the way they handled their finances. Luke presents it as a positive example, not a negative one.

Another theory is that God instituted a kind of primitive Christian communism which God wanted all Spirit-filled communities to copy. But although this may have worked in an ideal world, it did not work in Jerusalem with its less than perfect people, and it would not work anywhere with imperfect human beings. So it failed and Paul had to rescue them when the famine came.

These theories try to weaken the power of the example set by the first church Luke is describing. They try to create a way for us to read it and dismiss it as impractical, too idealistic.

But first of all, the sharing was not forced; it was voluntary. Not everyone sold what they had and gave the proceeds to the apostles. In fact, the only evidence we have is that some people sold some of what they had and gave the proceeds to the apostles.

Barnabas sold a field he owned, not everything he owned. People in the Jerusalem church owned private property. Later in Acts we read that Mark’s family owned a home the church met in. When Peter was miraculously released from prison, (Acts 12:12)
he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.

There was no regulation requiring people to share what they had with others. Nor was it done all the time. Luke writes,
For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Second, it is not that gave away their possessions. It is that “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own.”

John Stott writes,
Although in fact and in law they continued to own their goods, yet in heart and mind they cultivated an attitude so radical that they thought of their possessions as being available to help their needy sisters and brothers.

They did not look at what they had and say, “This is mine, mine, mine, mine.” They viewed what they had as belonging to God and when they were prompted by the Spirit, they shared what they had with those in need.

Third, the motivation for sharing what they had with each other was not due to regulations set by the apostles as a requirement to be part of the community. Their motivation was the result of the kingdom of God coming with power into their lives. Their actions came from hearts overflowing with the love and grace of God they experienced.

Luke writes,
With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them.

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” I think this is a reference to what Luke wrote in the Acts 2 summary. “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”

The apostles preached the kingdom of God and demonstrated that the kingdom of God had come with wonders and signs. People were healed and delivered from demonic oppression. These miracles demonstrated that the teaching of the apostles about the kingdom of God was true. The ministry of the disciples was characterized as powerful. But there was also power in another way.

In the community of believers, “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” Remember that grace in the New Testament is God giving us his love and mercy in abundance, without our doing anything to earn or deserve it. What did they do with this grace, with this abundance of God’s love and mercy that was given to them as a free gift?

In our study of Romans on Wednesday night we looked at what it means when Paul writes in his introduction to the church in Rome, (Romans 1:14)
I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.

The word translated “obligated” also can be translated “indebted.” In what way was Paul in debt to Greeks and non-Greeks? If I give you 1,000 dirhams, you are indebted to me. In what way was Paul in debt to the Greeks and non-Greeks. What had they ever given him that he needed to repay?

But if I give you 1,000 dirhams to give to someone else, you are indebted to that person. You owe that other person 1,000 dirhams. This is what Paul means by saying he is obligated, or indebted to Greeks and non-Greeks. Jesus gave him the gospel on the road to Damascus and charged Paul to take that gospel to the Gentile world. So Paul was indebted, obligated to take the gospel to the Gentile world.

Luke writes that “God’s grace was powerfully at work in them all.” Their experience of the grace of God was so powerful that they were indebted, obligated to share God’s grace with others. They were not obligated by rules and regulations. Their hearts were so full of the experience of grace in their lives that sharing what they had with others was the overflow of what was in their hearts.

This is what led to the members of the community selling a piece of land or something else they owned and putting the proceeds of the sale in the hands of the apostles.

People marveled at the healing of the man born lame. They also marveled at the way the followers of Jesus took care of each other.

I talk often about my early years as a follower of Jesus when I was part of a university ministry in Boston. There were about six hundred of us and when I read Luke’s summary of the early church it reminds me of our community in Boston. We shared what we had with others. We shared meals with each other. We met in small groups to study the bible and pray. We went out into the streets and parks of Boston to share our faith and every day there were new followers of Jesus in our community.

The most powerful evangelistic tool we had was our fellowship meeting on Sunday nights. As we met and shared with each other, prayed with each other, encouraged each other, those who were visiting were impressed and many of them decided to submit to Jesus and begin following him.

We did what we did because our hearts were full of the grace of God experienced in our lives. We wanted to meet together. We wanted to pray and study the bible together. We wanted to share what we had.

There are communities that are created where the leader mandates communal living and if someone does not share what they have with others, that person is disciplined or kicked out of the community. But communities like that are cults and lead to death, not life.

But when people share what they have with others because their heart is filled with an experience of the love and grace of God and they follow the prompting of the Spirit to share what they have, it is a powerful tool in the building of the kingdom of God on earth.

I graduated from seminary with almost no debt because of gifts that came to support me. Some of them came anonymously and I would be amazed at how God was providing for me.

You can see how powerful a tool sharing possessions with others is because the devil attacked it. Barnabas made a generous gift and the church was encouraged. Others shared what they had and the church was encouraged. So the devil tried to disrupt this source of encouragement by introducing false motives for giving. If it could be demonstrated that someone who gave a gift was doing it to receive honor and power rather than simply giving the gift out of a heart full of gratitude to God, it might cause people to challenge the motives of others who gave gifts to the church. It would weaken the encouragement that came from sharing possessions.

This is what happened with Ananias and Sapphira, which we will get to next week.

This morning, let’s take a look at the positive example of Barnabas.

Barnabas was a Levite from the island of Cyprus and a cousin of Mark who wrote the gospel. When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and wanted to come back to Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus did not trust him or his story of becoming a follower of Jesus. They suspected he was just saying this to get better inside information so he could persecute the followers of Jesus more effectively.

It was Barnabas who met with Paul and spoke up for him in the Jerusalem community of followers of Jesus.

Some time later Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to help and encourage the new believers in Antioch and while there, he sent for Paul to come and be one of the teachers of this growing number of followers of Jesus.

The church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul out on a missionary journey. Luke’s account mentions Barnabas and Paul whenever he talks about them, but because of Paul’s gifting, he took the lead on their journey and from then on out, we read about Paul and Barnabas.

As they prepared to set out on a second missionary journey, they had a serious dispute about bringing Barnabas’ cousin, Mark, who had begun with them on the first missionary journey but then deserted them and returned to Antioch. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance; Paul refused. So Paul set out with Silas and Barnabas and Mark set out in another direction.

Barnabas’ birth name was Joses or Joseph but was named Barnabas by the disciples because of his generous character, Barnabas meaning “son of encouragement.”

Selling a field he owned and giving the proceeds to the apostles was one example of this. But his character also enabled him to welcome Paul into the church family and vouch for him with the Jerusalem church. He did not hold on to power but brought Paul to Antioch where Paul eclipsed him with his teaching skills. And he did not begrudge it when Paul became the leader on their missionary journey. It was also his character that wanted to give Mark another chance after he failed on their first missionary journey.

I think we would be grateful to have a friend like Barnabas in our lives.

There is no indication that there was anything false in Barnabas. He was who he presented himself to be. He was warm, generous, loving, and kind. He was an encourager and who does not want an encourager in their life. His generosity, his willingness to give people a second chance, his willingness to step aside and let Paul take the lead speak about how loved he felt by God, how secure he was in his relationship with Christ. His faith was alive and his actions came from his heart.

And that is what I want to stress this morning.

It is not helpful to read the summaries in Acts 2 and 4 and try to make our community at RIC like the early church community. As soon as we begin to do that, we are imposing an external set of rules and regulations on ourselves. I don’t want to stand here and tell you to be more generous with your money and possessions. RIC might benefit if I am effective enough in what I say, but will it help to expand the kingdom of God? No. Churches in the world speak far too much about how people should give money to the church and far too little about deepening our relationship with Christ. When we abide in Christ, when we stay attached to Christ like a branch does to the vine in a vineyard, that is when the life of Christ pours into us. That is when we become filled with the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is when the Spirit works in us, transforming us into the people God created us to be. That is when the community of followers of Jesus comes alive and thrives.

The kingdom of God expands when the hearts of the community are filled with the love and grace of God. It is then that the actions of those in the community overflow and the community becomes devoted to teaching, to fellowship, to sharing meals together in our homes, to prayer. It is then that we will be generous and share what we have with others. It is then that we will see the power of God at work in our midst and the Lord will add daily to the number of those who are being saved.

Jesus said, (John 15:1–17)
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.