A Place to Share
February 7, 1999
This is the third sermon in the four-part series “A Place to Belong.” In this series we are examining the incredible dynamic that made the early church reach so many people so quickly. As I noted in the first sermon, the first Christians had none of the advantages we consider necessary today: No big buildings, no choirs, no organs, pianos or praise bands. They had no pews, no Sunday School rooms, no parking lots, and no church buses. They weren’t supported by Christian TV or radio or Christian bookstores, not to speak of Christian colleges and seminaries. Nevertheless they prospered—and in the early years the church grew explosively.
Our text today offers a fascinating peek inside the day-to-day life of the early church. Let’s begin with a quick look at the text, using a simple outline as our guide.
I. The Principle 32a
All the believers were one in heart and mind. This simple statement tells us that the believers shared a deep inner bond that joined them spiritually and emotionally. The Greek text says they were one “in heart and soul.”
II. The Proof 32b
No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Luke here moves from the invisible to the visible. In the early church if you had a need—and I had something that could meet that need—what was mine was yours. And what was yours was mine—if I truly needed it.
III. The Power 33
With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. They preached with power and God blessed their preaching, giving them favor with the people.
IV. The Plan 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. There are three groups in these two verses. There are the rich, defined as anyone who owned anything. There are the apostles, the designated spiritual leaders. There are the needy, defined as those too poor to own houses or lands. When the rich saw that certain believers had needs, they voluntarily sold some land or houses and brought the money and laid it at the feet of the apostles. The apostles then distributed it to the various needy believers in the congregation. This simple plan ensured that there would be no poverty in the church.
V. The Pattern 36-27
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. Barnabas (who later became an associate of the Apostle Paul) is here introduced as a Levite who became a follower of Jesus. We know his conversion was genuine because he contributed from his own resources to meet the needs of poor Christians in the Jerusalem church.
That’s the outline and a brief commentary. As I ponder this passage one question keeps coming to my mind. What made these people act this way? It’s not natural to do what they did. Everything the world teaches us moves in the opposite direction. The very essence of sin is to go your own way and do your own thing. Is this not what caused Lucifer to repeat “I will” five times as he rebelled against the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-15)? Nothing is more “natural” or “normal” than for us to say, “This is mine! Keep your hands off.”
Left to itself the heart always turns to selfishness. That’s why the advice to “follow your own heart” is often deadly. The Bible pictures the heart as deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), darkened, and the source of evil within us. Apart from God’s grace, following your heart will lead you into all kinds of sin. Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that like sheep we have all gone stray from God and each of us has turned “to his own way.” Picture a flock of sheep scattered on the hillside, each one following his own path. If one sheep is hurt or cornered by a wolf, that’s too bad because it’s every sheep for himself.
Five Strong Verbs
There is nothing in us by nature that would cause us to do what the early church did. So why did they do it? Recall for a moment the time when a rich young man visited our Lord and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-29). Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments. Being a serious young man, he asked, “Which ones?” Jesus listed several and included the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. The young man felt good about it because he had kept all those commandments from his youth. Is there anything else? Here is the answer Jesus gave in Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Every time I read this verse, I remember Haddon Robinson’s comment that it seems like in this passage you have the right question (What must I do to inherit eternal life?) and the wrong answer. I doubt that any of us has ever given the answer Jesus gave to this young man. If you ask me how to inherit eternal life, I’ll say something about accepting Christ as Savior. I may quote John 3:16 or Romans 5:8. But I won’t quote Matthew 19:21.
Look at the five verbs in this verse: Go … Sell … Give … Come … Follow. We’re quite happy with the last two and not at all sure what to do about the first three. We’re not comfortable with connecting following Jesus with selling all our worldly goods and giving the money to the poor. It seems a little radical.
Let’s take a quick look at Luke 12, which is in part a repeat of Matthew 6—the Sermon on the Mount. Luke 12:32 contains a wonderful promise: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Among other things, this is a promise that God has committed himself to provide for all our needs all the time. As citizens of the Kingdom, we can rely on our Father to put all of heaven at our disposal. Before you start celebrating too much, let’s read the next verse, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). Ouch! There is it again—sell what you have and give your money to the poor.
What does all this mean? I suggest that Jesus is teaching us that there is an intimate connection between our possessions, the way we treat other people, and our relationship with God. That’s not a comfortable thought for many people because we prefer a compartmentalized faith where we can have our possessions, not worry about anyone else, and still be in good standing with the Lord. Jesus seems to be saying that it doesn’t work that way.
I mention Matthew 19 and Luke 12 because I think those passages go a long way toward helping us understand Acts 4. Evidently the early Christians took the words of Jesus seriously and literally. That’s why they did what they did.
At the Apostles’ Feet
As we return to our text, notice that Luke twice uses an unusual expression to describe how the actual giving was done. In verse 35 and again in verse 37 (and in Acts 5:2 as well) we are told that the gifts were placed at “the apostles’ feet.” The picture that comes to mind seemed so unusual that I endeavored to discover more about it, only to find out that few commentators even mention it. The Lutheran commentator Lenski suggests that the apostles sat on a platform while church members brought their gifts forward and literally placed them at their feet. In Acts 22:3 we find a similar idea when Paul says he learned “at the feet” of the great rabbi Gamaliel. I assume that Gamaliel taught while seated in a chair with his many disciples sitting on the floor around him.
The whole idea of placing gifts at the apostles’ feet seems foreign to us. For one thing, it implies a very public offering, which makes most of us uncomfortable. During my trip to Nigeria in November I saw something similar during a public offering that lasted at least 20 minutes. As the whole congregation stood and sang and clapped, different groups came forward with their offerings for the building program. The pastors and elders went first, dancing off the platform as we placed our offerings in the big blue washtub. There was no hiding that day. If you gave—or if you didn’t—everyone knew about it.
The idea of placing the money at the apostles’ feet suggests several things:
1) Confidence in leadership—They had complete confidence that the apostles would handle their money correctly.
2) Sensitivity to needs—The rich people made their offerings “from time to time” as specific needs arose.
3) Genuine sacrifice for others—They sold “lands or houses” and brought all the money to be given to the needy.
4) Personal involvement—They sold their property and then personally placed the money at the apostles’ feet.
As a passing comment, I wonder what would happen in our churches if we had the pastors and elders sit on a platform while the people brought their offerings forward and placed them at their feet. I suppose it would depend on the character of the men on the platform.
I find it fascinating that nearly all the commentators note that we are not under obligation to follow this passage literally. Some even suggest the early church made a mistake to practice the communal sharing of personal resources, but I see no evidence of this in the text. While I agree that what happened in Jerusalem is not a binding pattern for all time, the underlying principle remains for us today. Sometimes we can use interpretive excuses to weasel out of the true meaning of a biblical text. We don’t have to do what they did the way they did it, but I would suggest that we do have to find our own ways to do what they did. The principle remains, the application varies from church to church and person to person.
Things to Think About
As we stand back and consider this passage as a whole, let me suggest four implications we need to think about:
1) True unity is a central mark of God’s work in a local church.
I don’t think I would have said that 20 years ago. Back then I was more impressed with bigness—the “nickels and noses” mentality. Those outward things are obviously important but they don’t go the heart of what a church should be. In recent years I have come to see that unity is a precious gift from God. In this world it is so unusual to find a group of people who truly love each other and have covenanted to stay together for the long haul. When you find that kind of love in the local church, you can know that it has come from God.
2) Unity is seen by the way we treat each other.
Some of you will remember reading Francis Schaeffer’s little book The Mark of a Christian. He makes a most persuasive argument in favor of visible love in the body of Christ. This is a “mark” that unbelievers can recognize even if they can’t understand our complicated doctrinal formulations. In the early church they didn’t just talk about unity, they practiced it at the deep level of sharing personal possessions.
3) The world responds when our message is accompanied by visible love.
That, I think, explains verse 33. It is precisely because there was such deep and visible unity (verse 32) that the apostles experienced great power in their preaching of the gospel. Preaching never takes place in a vacuum. In the early days of his ministry, Billy Graham went to Altoona, Pennsylvania for a “united” crusade. Unfortunately, there was so much dissension among the churches that the crusade was a failure. Dr. Graham then decided he would never go to a city unless he had the united support of the Christian community. When Christians love each other in a visible way, the world takes notice—and listens to our message.
4) Sharing with the needy is a primary sign of God’s grace at work.
This is a central truth of our text. The first Christians considered it a scandal that some of their number lived in poverty. They determined to do whatever it took to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters. This certainly fulfills the spirit of our Lord’s command to the Rich Young Ruler and his admonition to sell what you have and give the money to the poor.
I love the way Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates part of verse 32: “No one said, ‘This is mine! You can’t have it.’” I realize that this is contrary to the normal way most people look at their possessions. We all like to have some things we consider ours and ours alone. Even the most generous among us struggle to some degree with this principle. How had such a great transformation in values taken place? The gospel of Jesus Christ made all the difference. When the gospel enters a community, that community is changed forever. When the gospel penetrates a local church, the people inside the church begin to look at what they have in a new light. They begin to share with each other—not out of law or duty or because someone told them to but because their hearts have responded to God’s grace.
Changed by the Gospel We Preach
What should we take away from our study of this passage? Take a moment to consider three application statements:
1) We must preach the gospel because it alone has life-changing power—v. 33
This is always the place to begin because there is no substitute for the straightforward declaration of the truth. Romans 1:16 reminds us that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. We must tell the world that the Son of God died on the cross and rose from the dead. We must announce what God has done and invite everyone to repent and believe the gospel. No other message has the power to transform the selfish heart into a channel of blessing for others.
2) We must pray to be changed by the gospel we preach—v. 32
This follows as night follows day. As we preach, we must pray that our words will penetrate our own selfishness and transform us. Until we are changed, we cannot expect our preaching to change anyone else. Therefore, let us take our own words to heart and remember that true sharing begins with those closest to us—at home, in the local church, with our friends and acquaintances, and with those in need whom the Lord places in our path.
3) We must demonstrate that change by the way we handle our possessions—v. 34-37
It is not easy to change the way we look at what we call our own. Remember the Rich Fool of Luke 12:16-21 who wanted to build bigger buildings so he could store his grain. Little did he know that he would meet God that very night. And then who would get the things he stored up for himself? We are fools too if we think we own anything. We say, “This is my car, my home, these are my children, this is my wife, this is my business, and these are my investments”—as if we actually owned them. You don’t own anything. Never have, never will. Here’s the proof. When you die, someone else will get your car, your money, and your job. You don’t “own” your children or your spouse. Your life isn’t even your own.
How much better to look at all that you have as being loaned to you by God. You are at most the temporary custodian of all that you have. Even your life is a gift, one which he can recall at any moment. You come into this world with nothing, you leave with nothing, and in between you have temporary custody of a few things. Someday you will give an account of what you did with what you were given while you were alive.
Steve Brown and Tony Campolo
As the Good News spread the pagans said of the early Christians, “Behold, how they love one another.” Such deep love must be based on something deeper than friendship. Last Sunday morning Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville. He has a syndicated TV show with Tony Campolo where they analyze issues from a Christian point of view. Even a casual viewer soon realizes that they truly love each other even though they hardly ever agree on anything. Steve Brown commented that he’s so conservative he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a communist. Then he quipped that Tony Campolo is a “left-wing pinko.” How, then, do they get along so well? Answer: “The only thing we agree on is Jesus.”
Therein is the final truth for us to ponder. Any church can have unity if the people truly “agree on Jesus.” That’s what verse 32 means when it mentions “all the believers.” The phrase is literally “the whole multitude of believers.” The early church united around a shared commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else in the passage flows from that fact.
Your Watch and Your Keys
So let me ask this question: Do you really believe in Jesus? I don’t mean in a theoretical sense or even in a “saving faith” sense. I wonder if you believe what Jesus said in Luke 12:32? Do you believe that God has already given you the kingdom? Do you believe God is fully committed to meeting all your needs all the time and that you can therefore dare to be generous—and even reckless from the world’s point of view—with your possessions?
You own nothing. Everything you have has been loaned to you by God. What are you doing with what he loaned to you? As you read these words, I’d like you to take off your watch and place it in front of you. Now take your keys and place them next to your watch. Consider what your watch and your keys represent. Your watch keeps track of time, which measures the passing of your life. One day time will stop for you because your life itself is a temporary gift from God. What are you doing with the time you have been given?
Pick up your keys and look at them. You’ve probably got keys to your car, your home, and your office. Those keys represent your most precious material possessions. One day you will surrender control of your possessions to someone else. What are you doing with your earthly treasure?
Do you really believe in Jesus? If you do, it will change the way you view your time and your treasure. So many of us waste our years trying to hold what we can’t keep anyway. May God help us to hold lightly what we value greatly.
No one lives forever. The only choice we get is what we do with what we have been given. That choice matters forever. Everything else passes away.
Lord, help us to choose wisely so that we may be glad and not ashamed when we stand before you. Amen.