How many people would become Christians today if being baptized meant the government would seize their bank account, their spouse would be free to divorce them and take all the assets, if they were a student they would be removed from school, if employed they might be fired with no legal rights to protect them, their parents might not speak to them again, declaring them dead, and the community in which they lived would bar them from its gatherings? The fact is, such a price would be too high for many to be willing to pay. Even if they felt in their heart the gospel was true, the terror they would feel at the possibility of this kind of abandonment would prevent many from ever publicly confessing Jesus. Yes, of course, He said we must be willing to die for Him, but for someone considering following Him, the fear of such a backlash would be a real barrier.
I believe that a similar situation faced the Jerusalem church. To be baptized in the name of Jesus was a dangerous thing to do. A person could be left suddenly destitute, and many were. But impelled by the love in their hearts, and led by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, these early believers immediately rallied to take care of those who had been abandoned for their faith. And I believe the numerical explosion of the church in that hostile environment was directly related to their spontaneous generosity. The question facing us today, as we consider their example is this: Will we respond with the same depth of love and wisdom to remove the barriers our culture places in front of those who are considering following Jesus Christ?
What did they do? (Ac 4:32-35)
Criticizing their generosity
Believe it or not, the generosity of the Jerusalem church has been the subject of much criticism. Rather than admiring what they did, many over the centuries have looked for ways to dismiss it as foolish. Here are three of the most common criticisms. People say they gave so sacrificially because:
1) They had an immature view of the second advent, meaning these sincere but ignorant people thought Jesus would come back in a few weeks or months so they didnt mind selling off their financial assets because they wouldnt need them.
2) They were overwhelmed by an unnatural excitement, meaning they temporarily lost their common sense. They got caught up in group-hysteria that said lets prove how much we love Jesus by selling everything and giving the money to the poor.
3) Their unreasonable disposal of assets led to later poverty of the Jerusalem church caused by this over-hasty dissipation of capital, meaning they foolishly impoverished themselves and became a burden on the Gentile church later on.
The fact is, there is very little information about the persecution these believers faced in the first months of the church. Luke describes the official opposition by the nations religious leaders, but says nothing about the hostility individuals encountered when they went home after being baptized. But in my opinion, the sudden presence of so many poor believers must have an explanation. Remember the Jews were an industrious, family-oriented people, so there wasnt wide-scale hunger. Yes, there were poor among those who were physically unable to work, orphans, widows, and those with contagious diseases, like leprosy, but Judaism held a strong value on giving alms, and this provided a level of care for these.
I believe the traditional criticisms leveled against the generosity of the apostolic church are terribly mistaken and have prevented us from seeing the powerful principle that was at work here. This wasnt foolish exuberance, it was brilliant missiological strategy, and it made the rapid expansion of the church possible even though it was located in an unusually hostile environment. Without this safety net growth in that city would have been strangled almost immediately. The price of following Jesus would have been way too high for most to pay. They would have been faced with a terrible choice: If you become a Christian, youll end up alone and starving.
One heart and soul
Responding in love, and led by the Holy Spirit, our forefathers and mothers removed that obstacle beginning on the first day of the churchs existence. Basically they said, Your soul is more important than my retirement fund. Their shocking generosity announced to everyone in the city, If youre left destitute after being baptized, well care for you as if you were our own flesh and blood. Well become your new family. Well take you in and feed you, for as long as you need it. Notice, this wasnt a short-term program, it was a long-term commitment. Those who still owned land or houses, I assume beyond those in which they were living, sold them to provide funds to feed the growing number of impoverished believers. All donations were brought to the apostles who distributed them in an organized and equitable way based on a persons particular need. Some needed more than others.
If this level of generosity were simply the proper expression of discipleship, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor
(Mt 19:21; Lk 18:22), the apostles would have taught and practiced it everywhere they went. They didnt.
The threat of ostracism is an effective way of stopping most evangelism, and its still used today in many cultures. A person who is ostracized is totally cut off from family and/or community, leaving them alone and desperate, but the Jerusalem church quickly drew new believers into a close, family-like relationship (house to house) and in doing so, heard each others story. They soon discovered the circumstances individuals were facing at home, and were able to respond right away with real, practical help. Their intense community and selfless generosity removed the threat of abandonment and starvation. As the years passed, the hostility in that city was so persistent that their local resources gave out, which is why believers in other cities and nations began to send help as they were able (Ac 11:28-30; 1Co 16:1-4; 2Co 8:1-15; 9:1-15; 1Th 2:14-16).
What can we give?
In that culture being of one heart and soul meant sacrificial giving of money. They sold whatever they could spare so new believers wouldnt starve. But in our culture most people arent brutally thrown out of our families, fired from our jobs, divorced by our spouses, etc.at least not to the same degree. The barriers placed in front of us are different. We too face threats, but ours are more relational than physical. Becoming a Christian in our culture tends to isolate us from friends and family. As time passes we no longer feel comfortable doing some of the things we used to do, and we can end up feeling very alone. Our faith may be mocked or viewed with suspicion until we withdraw in silence.
Can those considering Christ be confident that they wont end up desperately alone? Will there be a real family waiting for them? If old relationships grow cold will new ones take their place? In order to remove this barrier the price we must pay isnt primarily money, its time. People who become Christians in this culture need friendship, they need a church that will welcome them into a new family, they need people willing to sacrificially give of their time to be friends and mentors. And for busy, tired people the idea of giving up needed rest and recreation to spend time with people who need us, can feel just as costly as having to sell an asset to feed the poor, but it can also be just as powerful.
1) Has someone personally been very generous in helping you? Why did they do this? What effect did it have on you?
2) Which is harder for you to give: time or money? Why?
3) Did you have fears about what might happen to you if you became a Christian? What were they? Did they actually happen?