Think back for a moment to the last act of genuine kindness you received. Something that demonstrated true sacrificial love on the givers’ part. What was it? How did you respond? What feelings welled up inside of you? Let me take you back to a recent event for me. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was driving home from my parents. I’ve hunted for years, and I’ve never seen a turkey. Listen, I’ve driven 322 for years, and have never seen a turkey either. Until that faithful Monday. I rounded one of the corners, noticed a large black object along the side of the rode. By the time I realized what it was, the turkey had taken flight and met an untimely end. I had a bike rack on top of my truck, and it had come off, damaging the roof, so I had to take it into the shop for repairs. However, my wife and I only had one car at the time, and it would’ve been expensive for us to rent a vehicle for a week. Thankfully, members of our small group at Wheatland lent us a car for over a week while my truck received work.
Now, think back to a moment when you demonstrated an act of kindness to someone else. What was that act? How did the recipient respond? How did you feel?
What I want us to consider is the motivation for our act of love. This act was probably simple. It may have been spontaneous. Chances are, it flowed from a deep well of love that was filled over time. As a result of this act of kindness, it may have propelled us to continue showing mercy to others.
As we approach our text this morning, I think we observe this very phenomenon. You see for the early church, its survival ultimately depended on God’s providence of course, but it also depended on their unity and service to each other.
The point I want to drive home in our time together is this: As we build our common life together as a result of Jesus’ work, we should support the church however we can so that we who were given grace can continue to grow in grace and thereby show grace to others.
Life Together as Common Life (v. 32)
The first thing I want us to consider is that our life together is “common.” What do I mean by that? Well first, not as ordinary, but as unified.
We notice first in this passage the words “the full number of those who believed.” What Luke—the author of this book—intended to communicate was “everyone.” However, this phrase drives it home in a more meaningful way. It indicates that what follows was not a partial church effort but involved every single person. We’re unsure of the specific size of this church. However, as Luke repeatedly proclaims throughout Acts, God grew his church day by day and often by the thousands. Just examine Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.
Now, to avoid any confusion, those who “believed” was not past tense, meaning they were not people who formerly believed and then fell from the faith. These are the saints of the church—those actively believing performed the acts of grace that followed.
The fullness of the church possessed such a strong unity that if you asked anyone what they believed, thought, or did, they would more than likely give you the same response.
This unity fulfills the Old Testament vision God had for his people. In Ezekiel 11:19 (ESV): “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, …”
In fact, this is what Paul commands of the church in his letters to the Philippians (1:27, ESV): “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing first in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, …”
God’s vision for his people is a unity so tight that the Gospel may go forth and be proclaimed among the nations. This effort immediately trickled down to their wealth and possessions.
The picture of the church that Luke paints shows that no one hoarded what they had because they did not view their possessions as their own. For the Lord and the Giver of Life who redeemed them from the Pit has given them their ultimate possession: salvation. All earthly things and creature comforts in this life pales in comparison to the gift of salvation. As a result of this worldview shattering reality, they shared what they had freely.
As we note early in Acts (2:44ff), the direct result of this giving to each other and those in need lead to deeply unified church that continued to grow as they ministered to those around them.
That’s what it means to have all things in common: You are so unified as a church that you do not view your brothers and sisters as if they competed against you; you viewed them as blessings from the Lord.
The Gospel and our Common Life Together (v. 33)
We’ve observed how the gospel provided the basis for a strongly unified church. However, we should take a couple minutes to consider what the gospel is and why it transformed the church.
When God had created all things all the way back in Genesis 1-2, he created everything “good.” By this, no imperfection resided in his creation because its creator is perfect.
However, as we quickly learn in Genesis 3, sin entered God’s perfect creation. Through Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience, they fell from the estate wherein they were created, bringing all of creation with them.
As we progress throughout the Old Testament, we see glimmers of what creation was, we see the worst of what creation could become, and we see beams of redemption throughout. As God guided his people, he divinely orchestrated all of human history to prepare for a single life: the life of his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus, who was, is, and will continually be fully God, took to himself a true body and became man through his incarnation by the Holy Spirit’s conception in the womb of the virgin Mary. He lived a perfect and sinless life to die in our place as a sacrifice for our sins. However, he did not stay buried, but on the third day after his death, he rose from the dead and continued to minister for some time after his resurrection. When his time was complete, he ascended into heaven and sat down next to God the Father. This imagery indicates that the work of redemption is complete, and its effects will continue to be felt as he reigns over all things and comes to restore all things—humanity and creation—on the last day.
If you are a Christian, you know this good news and you know its power. Thus, when it is proclaimed, it goes forth with God’s power and transforms the hearts of the hearers—sometimes slowly, sometimes instantly. You know the grace shown to you through Jesus’ death in your place and are able to show it to others. This grace is so powerful that the apostles (and the rest of the church) boldly proclaimed it in their cities, not fearing the death and persecution that may come (as it did for many—including most of the apostles). For if you’ve been transformed by such a powerful grace, then death and sin pale in comparison to what is about to come.
Giving as a Result of Our Grace (vv. 34-35)
One tangible impact of this unified, grace filled community was the lack of need anyone had. For if no one views their possessions as their own, then they can give freely (just as the nature of the gospel is free to all). Just as the gospel radically saved them from their sins, so they took radical steps to provide for those who had need.
Life back then is not much different than now. Owning property is an expensive ordeal that often involves decades of loans that can only be paid off through hard work. For some, owning property is a status symbol. If you have a 1-acre lot with 3 beds, 2.5 baths in the suburbs, to most you’re doing well. In fact, for some, this means you’ve arrived at the American dream. (Note: I am not attempting to disparage anyone who has this layout, but simply highlighting how owning property can be a prideful status symbol to some.) In the Greek-Roman world of Luke, owning property meant you were not indebted to anyone and were extremely wealthy because not just anyone had a house and land.
To sell your house and land would generate a massive income. For most, they would turn around and invest this money into another house. However, for this new band of Christ followers, they gave it all to the church, hence laying “it at the apostles’ feet.” In turn, the apostles would take these proceeds and distribute to any who had need fairly.
Although they gave to the apostles, note what the text does not say. David G. Peterson helpfully notes that the text does not say the gifts were given in front of others. While an argument from silence, they did not let their wealth in their giving be their boast and pride, so they gave privately.
This model would eventually serve as a basis for deacons in Acts 6. As the church continued to expand and the apostles continually proclaimed the gospel in Judea, Samaria, and the world, needs continued to rise. They would address these needs the best they could, but they began to realize that their purpose in this life was to be fully dedicated to the proclamation of the gospel. As the church continued to grow, they could not be sacrificing time from gospel proclamation. While “serving tables” or helping others was important, there was a recognition that others in the church were more qualified for this job. They appointed a series of men, ordained them for this ministry, and sent them to serve others. As a result, the church continued to grow from this newfound office.
Example (vv. 36-37)
Now, it’s easy to talk about these principles generically. However, it’s difficult to drill down and really examine how this is lived out. Thankfully, Luke has provided us with a helpful case study of someone so transformed by grace that he couldn’t help but live his life in service to others. This is why I started us out thinking through an example of tremendous giving. It gives us a tangible thing to hang the new ideas on.
Joseph was his name. However, his character reflected one of continual encouragement to others that the apostles nicknamed him “Barnabas”—don’t ask me how a nickname can be longer than the original name. Barnabas simply means “Son of Encouragement.” We learn from the text that he is a Levite—one of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were servants in the temple and had no land inheritance as a rule. We’re not too sure about Joseph’s whole background, but we do know that he lived in Cyprus for a long enough time to be considered a resident there. Due to its location, he likely did not serve in the temple. However, there was a strong Jewish population on this island that he could identify with.
Now, by the time of Christ is seems that Levities owned land more freely. However, after hundreds of generations of not owning land, this came as a disadvantage to the people. For Levities to finally own land would be a real status symbol: one that showed they overcame years of dependence on the other tribes of Israel, and they could finally sustain themselves.However, Joseph does something radical. First, he takes the land he probably worked so hard for, sold it, and gave the proceeds to the apostles. Not only that, but the proceeds he gave would likely be dispersed to Gentiles—people Jews tended to avoid. Joseph could only do this because he experienced the deep grace of Jesus and thereby showed it to others through radical giving.
Oftentimes, our paragraph and section break in our Bibles are helpful and provide clear boundary markers for stories and ideas. While most Bibles provide our passage in its own self-contained unit, I think it would be wise for us to briefly consider the next story as I believe it provides a negative depiction of those who were not unified and became greedy.
Acts 5 begins with “But …” indicating that what follows stands in contrast to what proceeds. We observe that this husband-and-wife duo sold their property, just like the others were doing in the church, just like Joseph. However, rather than giving the proceeds to the church which they agreed upon beforehand, they became greedy when they saw the value of their property, so they retained some of the profit. Note that in our passage today and in this story, no one was obliged to sell what they had to support the needy. However, when they saw what they really had, “Satan filled [their] heart.” Peter pronounces a judgement against them both and they both fell dead.
This episode comes as quite a surprise. As David G. Peterson helpfully notes, the church was not compelled to give such great gifts through their preaching. They simply preached Jesus. They gave from a deep well of grace they were given. Just prior we’re reading about how the church is sacrificially serving each other and stood together in such a deep unity. Now, we’re reading about those who deviated from the unity and refused to help the church as intended. However, this episode proclaims to those who saw what happened and those who read it now that the Lord is not to be tested. If we agree to help support in such a way, we should follow through with our pledge. This story serves as a warning.
Living as Exiles
Now, as we end today, I want us to consider several pieces of application for us from this passage.
Unique Salvation History
This passage contributes several unique things to salvation history. Mainly, we observe an intense unity of the church and service. While we see glimmers of unity and service in our churches today, we rarely stand in such a unity. For instance, look at our Presbyterian churches in America. We have so many denominations that merged and split over these past couple centuries for one reason or another, some more worthwhile than another. That’s not to mention all the other church denominations all over the world. However, we observe in our text today that the church did not make distinctions, but rather pursued unity however they could. This unity proved vital to the survival of the early church. They took drastic measures to ensure that everyone was well taken care of—not out of obligation, but out of a deep well of grace. We should worship God for this period of the church because he used this unity and service to establish his church and send them out to fulfill his great commission.
This situation is no less different than for the church today. As we observe in the world around us and as we read repeatedly throughout Revelation, the world is not as hospitable as we would like it to be. If the church is to endure, it must recapture this vision of unity and service. While it may not look like us selling our homes and properties for the sake of others, it does look like sacrificial giving for the flourishing of others who have need.
Although non-Christians are not explicitly mentioned in our passage, it does speak to them. Although not the sole purpose of this passage, when we examine the image of the church provided here, we see it stands in stark contrast to what the world offers. In the church, we see unity. In the world, we see tribalism. In the church we see service. In the world, we see greed. In the church, we see grace. In the world, we see cruelty. Now, this is not to say that the church is perfect in all regards—for those of us who have been hurt by abusive church leaders and by other situations, this reality is all too real for us. However, when we observe the inherent nature of the church, she offers something naturally that the world can only artificially produce at best subpar. Through the apostles’ proclamation of the Gospel, they beg unbelievers to flee from their atheism and paganism and come unto God the Father through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. For Yahweh is the true God, and all other idols pale in comparison to him.
We, the church today, should take our unity and service seriously. For as we act like the church, we provide an example to the world of what the Christian life offers. While we’re still imperfect, we strive together to continually exhibit and fulfill what God has called us to. Not only that, but we should take opportunities to serve those outside of our church walls to provide a godly witness to our communities.
This passage also shapes our understanding of how we live our lives in the public. You see, this image of the church in Acts is not one of isolation or seclusion. While the church primarily took care of the needs of those around them, they did so in the context of their communities. These great acts of grace happened in their neighborhoods. As they worked in the fields or markets or walked in the city, no doubt whispers were exchanged about that crazy guy or gal over there who sold all they had to help those who didn’t have anything.
While we shouldn’t perform these acts of grace to gain accolades, it does impact our public witness. As I’ve been continually driving home for us today, we are a unified and serving church because of the grace we’ve experienced that we must show to others. As we live out this unity and service, no doubt our neighbors, co-workers, family—you name it—will notice that something is different about us, and so inquire about the gospel or come for help in a time of need.
When it comes to Jesus, he so saturates our passage today through explicit references and implicit examples. As I proclaimed earlier, the apostles proclaimed the gospel of Jesus’ life and work. While the gospel provides a sure motivation for anything and everything, more specifically the giving of his life to save a wretched people propelled the church to do the same. As N. T. Wright hints at in his helpful commentary on Acts, the church forgave financial debt and provided financial means for those who had need because the Gospel forgives our sinful debt and provides grace to us. When you experience the sheer grace of the gospel, then you can’t help but display it to others. And for the early church that was through giving and providing for those who had less.
Now, some of you may be asking about those who intend to take advantage of this system. I would urge us to look to Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church. While we should possess discernment, we should not possess a cynical outlook of what will happen with our giving. Instead, we should have faith that the Lord will use our gifts how we please. And if anyone misuses what we give, then the Lord—who is judge—will judge that grievous sin.
Unity in Diversity
They did not as James says show partiality. In James 2:1-5, we read “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man.”
In the church—the Christian community—we make no such distinctions for we are all one in Christ. We all have various needs, and we all have various means. We may be looking to move, to change jobs, to decide whether this paycheck will go to gas or groceries. Some of us are in the upper class, middle, or lower. We’re engineers, preachers, stay-at-home parents, educators—you name it. We may have kids, we may not. We may be living off a stringent social security check or reaping the benefits of our 401k.
During this diverse socio-economic diversity, the church has the glorious opportunity to be unified through providing for others sacrificially. In fact, as we give, we so exhibit the grace in our lives received by the gospel and demonstrate the light within us to our communities.
Now listen, I get it. Money can be tight. Especially when you add up your educational debt, car payments, mortgage payments, insurance, groceries, gas, internet, phone bill, electricity, water, figuring out. how to support children or parents … and then add charitable giving on top of that? Whew, life is expensive.
However, we should make giving a priority in our financial lives. It won’t always be easy. But we live in this life for 70 years, 80 if we’re really healthy, maybe 90s? In the end, our inheritance won’t be what we amassed in this life, but our King Jesus.
If you’re an employer, consider helping your employees by providing an adequate salary so that they can live within their means and also give generously with a cheerful heart.
Your Local Church
Now, before we all get up and place our houses on the market (although now is a phenomenal time to sell), we should sit for a moment and consider what this passage is calling for us as a church today.
Not everyone is called to give in the same way. For example, those who were often extremely wealthy would host house churches in their own elaborate homes. It would be difficult for the church to worship together without these faithful patrons providing a space. It wouldn’t be possible if everyone sold the roofs over their heads.
However, we should consider in what sacrificial ways we can give to others who are in need. Perhaps it’s not through money, but through providing a place for someone to stay for a couple nights. Perhaps it’s through giving of your time or skills to help someone else with house or work projects. Perhaps its spending time with your family and friends and being a faithful gospel presence in their lives. Whatever it may be, identify ways to give of yourself to others for God’s kingdom.
May God, through his Son, by his Spirit equip us with generous hearts as we grow in grace because of the grace we’ve received in the gospel. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This post was originally a sermon delivered at Lebanon Valley Presbyterian Church, a mission church of the Presbyterian Church in America on September 26, 2021. It has been modified from its original version.