Exploring Dependence – The Needs Of The Saints
“Sixteen out of Christ’s 38 parables deal with money; more is said in the New Testament about money than heaven and hell combined; five times more is said about money than prayer; and while there are 500 plus verses on both prayer and faith, there are over 2000 verses dealing with money and possessions. Obviously, the Bible has much to say about money management.”
I don’t know how many times I have heard some version of this statement in a sermon about money. Ostensibly, this money management was about being a good steward, but, over time, I discovered it was simply code for “you need to give more.”
One particular sermon stands out in my memory.
I was in my mid-20′s and had discovered the richness of God’s Word. I loved to see His truths jump out as a passage unfolded.
So, I was excited when the preacher announced the text for this sermon – Acts 5:1-11 – the story of Ananias and Sapphira. A rich story with a strong message.
I was familiar with the story, which was set in the earliest days of the church. Acts 4:32-37 gives the background -
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.
Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Barnabas’ generosity seems to have brought him an elevated status, because Ananias and Sapphira, a couple within the church, want to be like him. So, they too, sold a piece of property.
But as the story unfolds, we discover their gift was not what it seemed. Unlike Barnabas, they only pretended to give all the proceeds from the sale to the apostles, keeping some back for themselves.
Because of their lies, God strikes each of them dead, first Ananias and then, Sapphira.
Such a dramatic and powerful story. I couldn’t wait to hear the sermon.
Except in the sermon, God didn’t strike them dead for lying. He killed them because they didn’t give their tithe.
Wait. You mean if they had only given ten percent, they wouldn’t have died?
Not according to that pastor.
I was beyond disappointed. I was grieved. It was painful to hear Scripture distorted like that.
But while that is one of the most egregious examples I can remember, I now realize that many of the sermons I heard on giving, as well as some that I preached, ignored significant details in a passage to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.
My summary impression from all these sermons was that God is as obsessed with money as we are, and He demands that we give in excess of ten percent to support ministry, with the primary beneficiary being the local church, followed by missions.
That is a long way from what I now understand the Scriptures to teach. The journey from there to here has been marked by three major shifts.
The first was the realization that many of the key passages used as texts for messages on giving to the church and missions were not really about funding ministry, but about caring for the needs of saints within the church, particularly the church in Jerusalem.
As we have already seen, that is the background of the Ananias and Sapphira story. Those within the church who had property were liquidating it, and giving the proceeds to the apostles so that there was “not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
The poverty within the church in Jerusalem was widely known:
Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders. Acts 11:27-30
… but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. Romans 15:25-27
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem… 1 Corinthians 16:1-3
When you read of the poor among the saints in Jerusalem, what do you envision?
To get a proper picture of the situation, it is helpful to consider the information available to us:
- In socio-economic terms, the church contained a spectrum. On the upper end of that spectrum would be those who, like Barnabas, were wealthy enough to own property that they could liquidate (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37). On the other end would have been widows, who had no independent means of support (Acts 6:1-6).
- These fundamental economic conditions were undercut by at least one famine (Acts 11:27-30).
- The church in Jerusalem experienced intense persecution, including both imprisonment and execution. This persecution pleased the Jews (Acts 12:1-5). Although written to believers living outside of Jerusalem, the recipients of Hebrews were also persecuted by Jews. They were made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations (Hebrews 10:32-34). Such public ridicule and opposition would have made it very difficult for believers to get work or conduct business. And the seizure of their property would have seriously drained any resources already in their possession. It is not unreasonable to think that the saints in Jerusalem experienced the same type of opposition.
- The wealthy in the church were sharing all their resources so that not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them (Acts 4:32).
So, the ministry to the poor in Jerusalem wasn’t some kind of outreach to those who were down on their luck. It was the expression of fellowship and mutual care that existed among everyone in the church in Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is perhaps the longest passage on giving in the New Testament. It was the basis for many of the sermons I heard. In spite of that, it is not about giving to fund the operation of an institutional church. The entire passage deals with the Corinthians expressed desire to “support the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:4). From Romans 16:15 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 (see above) it is clear that these are the poor in the church in Jerusalem. Thus, the circle of fellowship and mutual care that existed among the saints in Jerusalem has expanded. Now the saints in Macedonia, Achaia (which included Corinth), and Galatia have joined in.
This brings us to the second shift in my understanding. Whereas most of the teaching that I heard on giving relied on a strange mix of compulsion/guilt (“If you don’t tithe, God will cause something bad to happen, like your car breaking down that will cost you exactly what you withheld.”) and greed (“You can’t out-give God.”) to prompt giving, the gifts to the poor in Jerusalem come from a very different place.
Read through the following passages. What value shows up in all three?
… and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Acts 2:45
He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. Ephesians 4:28
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. 1 Timothy 6:17-19
Did you see it?
What is explicitly stated in these passages, aptly describes what is going on in all of the passages. Look at 2 Corinthians:
For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality — at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality; as it is written, “HE WHO gathered MUCH DID NOT HAVE TOO MUCH, AND HE WHO gathered LITTLE HAD NO LACK.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
These gifts weren’t about performing some religious duty or obligation. They were about sharing. Fellowship. Mutual care.
Which brings me to the third shift in my understanding. We tend to bring our categories to the Scriptures, and ask questions based on those categories. What does God want regarding my work? My marriage? My finances? Those kind of categories are primary for us, and we assume that they must be for God as well.
But sometimes I discover they are not. Which is the case here.
In most of these passages, the writer is not saying, “Ok, now let’s talk about what God wants you to do with your money.”
See, for God, I think there is a much more fundamental issue. The unity of His body – the church. And this unity goes much deeper than gathering to sing a few songs we all know, while ignoring significant differences about our beliefs. Deeper than gathering together in the same place every week. Deeper than having fun together in group settings.
Perhaps the best picture of that unity is found in the first scripture we looked at -
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. Acts 4:32
Yes, God is concerned about our money — as it expresses our willingness, even desire, to share in the journey – the suffering and hardship – of fellow disciples. As it manifests the unity of His body.