Sharing, honesty, growth and consequences

INDEX

Acts 4:32-5:42

Sharing

The early Christian disciples did not live in a commune as such, but they did hold their possessions loosely. Jesus had shown them, by His example, that we should not attach too much importance to possessions. They have value only temporarily and can easily be lost. Setting our hearts on such things will lead inevitably to disappointment. (See Matthew 6:19-21.)

Possessions are there to be used from day to day, but our aim is to acquire real treasure in heaven. The disciples took this literally – as Jesus had intended - and used whatever they had for the common good of all the believers. They recognised the truth of Jesus' words that it was "more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Even houses and areas of land were not regarded as anything special; whatever the Holy Spirit led people to give was given in full, without complaint or distress but with gladness and willingness. As they did so, they saw the principles of God's kingdom being worked out in their lives (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

Promises linked to sharing

  1. Give generously... without a grudging heart; then... God will bless you in all your work... (Deuteronomy 15:10)
  2. (The one) who lends money to the poor without interest... will never be shaken. (Psalm 15:5)
  3. Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely (Psalm 112:5)
  4. (The righteous) have freely scattered their gifts to the poor... their horn will be lifted high in honour (Psalm 112:9)
  5. The LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12)
  6. Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and He will reward them. (Proverbs 19:17)
  7. The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor. (Proverbs 22:9)
  8. Those who give to the poor will lack nothing. (Proverbs 28:27)
  9. (The wife of noble character) opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:20)
  10. When you give a banquet... invite the poor... and you will be blessed. (Luke 14:13-14)
  11. Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33; Luke 18:22)
  12. God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. (Acts 10:31)

Next time you feel challenged to share any belongings, look through these verses and remember that your real treasure is in heaven.

Honesty

The tribes of IsraelIn this section, Luke contrasts the behaviour of two men. First of all, we see Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus. "Levites" were descended from the priestly tribe of Levi, one of Jacob's sons. (Jacob was later called "Israel".) Joseph had been given a nickname by the apostles: Barnabas - which means "son of encouragement". It's not clear whether he'd earned his nickname before this incident or because of it, but it was clearly apt. He sold a field, brought the proceeds of the sale and laid it "at the apostles’ feet". (In other words, he gave the money as a gift to the community.)

The second man was Ananias, who had a wife: Sapphira. This couple also decided to sell a field. It was theirs to sell and they were perfectly entitled to do anything they liked with the proceeds of the sale. However, what they actually did was to hold on to part of the proceeds of the sale and offer the rest to the apostles as a gift to the church community. In doing so, they were effectively telling a lie. It seems that they wanted to be known as a caring, generous couple within the community - making a sacrificial offering to God as whole-hearted disciples. In the Torah (the section of the Jewish Scriptures that contained the law of Moses), in the book of Deuteronomy (which is now part of what we know as the "Old Testament"), there is a passage that talks about making sacrifices to God. In those days, wealth was reckoned in livestock, so animal sacrifice was equivalent to giving money in later years. Deuteronomy 15:21 says clearly that a sacrifice offered to God had to be perfect: without defect; not lame or blind or with any serious flaw. What Ananias & Sapphira chose to do was, in effect, to offer a flawed sacrifice. Instead of giving the full amount, they tried to offer something less.

Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and knew immediately that Ananias was lying. He faced Ananias with what he had done, pointing out that he was not simply lying to his fellow disciples, but to God Himself. The shock at the realisation of what he had done, hit Ananias hard. Whether it caused a heart attack or stroke we don't know, but we do know that he fell dead at Peter's feet. Similarly, when Sapphira comes in some time later, not knowing what has happened, she repeats the same lie and suffers the same fate.

The apostle Paul writes, in Galatians 6:7, "Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked." We must be very careful how we deal with each other as Christians because, as Christians, we are all part of Christ's Body - the church. In dealing with each other, therefore, we are dealing with God Himself. We need to search our hearts and ask ourselves whether what we are doing and saying is truthful and honouring to God. If it isn’t, we need to stop it, repent and ask for forgiveness. If necessary, we need to put right any wrong impressions or misunderstandings that we have caused. We cannot fool around with God; neither can we expect God to bless something that is not true.

The effect on the church was immediate and shocking. Who is this God that we serve? God is all-knowing, so when we plan deceit, He knows it. Luke tells us that "great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events... Nobody else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people." (Acts 5:11-13) Once again, we see the foundations of the whole society in Jerusalem being shaken by the coming of the kingdom of God in truth and power.

Growth

The example of the new believers in their generosity and caring for each other, in their openness and honesty, made an enormous impact on all those in Jerusalem. The believers were markedly different and only those who genuinely "believed in the Lord" were willing to join with them. But the signs and wonders continued. The believers met at the temple, prayed together and listened to the teaching of the apostles. More and more people responded to the good news about Jesus by turning to God. As the kingdom of heaven grew and God's presence, through His Holy Spirit, filled the city, so the miraculous signs and wonders also multiplied.

In a time of declining church attendance and growing contempt for the traditions and beliefs of the Christian faith, believers today face a spiritual desert of indifference and ignorance, that is a long way from the fear and respect showed by the ordinary people of Jerusalem in the book of Acts. The tide of faith has ebbed in many Western countries and believers have been left floundering in isolated rock pools, often fearful to be known as Christians, fearful of facing persecution and desperately clutching at all sorts of schemes and projects that offer a prospect of growth, but more often than not are based on commercial or business practices, rather than the presence of God's Spirit within the kingdom of heaven.

The obvious question is whether or not we believe that God can still intervene on His peoples' behalf. It is worth remembering that, as these events were unfolding in Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus' death and resurrection there, the rest of the world continued, much as our modern world does, in a climate of indifference and ignorance. By contrast, today God is still moving in other parts of our own world and the kingdom of God continues to grow. It doesn't generally receive much attention in our local media bulletins and articles, but it's happening nonetheless.

Consequences

Growth and success are often seen as being the goal of an enterprise and its satisfactory conclusion. But, as we saw in our previous study, we live in a world where there is an ongoing struggle between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of darkness. Wherever the kingdom of heaven shines, our enemy rushes to douse it in cold water or, more frequently, blood. Hence, growth and success are often the prelude to jealousy and anger and so it proved to be in the book of Acts.

The leaders of the Jewish nation, both religious and secular, were concerned to stamp out this dangerous movement before it had a chance to spread further and so they took a decisive and significant step: they arrested all of the apostles. This time, it appears to be not just Peter and John, but all twelve of the apostles! The situation is escalating and the stakes are growing ever higher. Do we sense here a faint whiff of desperation as the authorities try to keep a lid on things? Throughout human history, many rulers have resorted to overwhelming force to resolve a situation in their favour. In the short term, this usually succeeds but, in the longer term, it rarely brings good results... for anyone.

In this case, the authorities' victory proved short-lived. An angel was sent during the night to free the apostles and encourage them to continue with what had become their normal routine: meeting in the temple to preach and teach. Imagine the embarrassment, confusion and fear that must have followed when the temple guards went to fetch their prisoners! But the escapees are not in hiding somewhere. They are gathered openly in the temple, preaching their message about Jesus to all who would listen. With utmost discretion, the captain of the guard politely requests the apostles to accompany him to the courthouse.

The authorities, led by the High Priest, are less courteous, but Peter is equally impatient. The gloves are off as the authorities complain that the apostles have not respected the previous ruling and are now trying to blame them for Jesus' execution. Peter responds that they are most certainly responsible for Jesus' death, but that God has raised him to new life and, thereby, vindicated Jesus as His chosen one - the "messiah" who is now the Prince of a new kingdom and bringing the whole nation to repentance and forgiveness.

The High Priest can see only the death of all the apostles as a way forward in this confrontation and the situation is threatening to spiral out of control, when an older and wiser counsel prevails. Gamaliel steps forward as a respected teacher and member of the hardline group known as "Pharisees". He is perhaps thinking again of the ever-present threat to the Jewish people from their Roman overlords. He warns that things could get out of hand if they deal too harshly with the apostles. "If their purpose is of human origin, it will fail", he says. "But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:35-39).

The court decides to heed this advice and to step back from issuing a death sentence. Instead, an order is made that the apostles be flogged and released, with another warning against speaking in the name of Jesus. The apostles returned from their experience with renewed vigour and determination, "rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41). They redoubled their efforts to teach and proclaim the good news that Jesus was the Messiah.

What about us? Are we prepared for the potential consequences of growth and success? The apostle Peter later wrote the following words that make clear where he was ready to stand: "But, in your hearts, revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3:15)


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