It was said of early Christians that they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, NKJV), but could the same be said of the church in our generation? A realistic assessment would have to concede that the opposite has occurred—the world has turned the church upside down, and Christians have allowed it to do so.
We have forgotten certain fundamental truths that ought to guide our thinking: God is sovereign, not the potential attendee. The Bible, not a marketing plan, is supposed to be the sole blueprint and final authority for all church ministry. Ministry should meet people’s real needs, not salve their selfishness. And the Lord of the church is Christ, not some couch potato with the remote control in his hand.
I never hear the term “user-friendly church” without thinking of Acts 5 and Ananias and Sapphira. What happened there flies in the face of almost all contemporary church-growth theory. The Jerusalem church certainly wasn’t very user-friendly. In fact, it was exactly the opposite; Luke tells us this episode inspired “great fear . . . upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). The church service that day was so disturbing that none of the unchurched people “dared to associate with them.” The thought of attending such a church struck terror in their hearts, even though “the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). The church was definitely not a place for sinners to be comfortable—it was a frightening place!
Let’s look carefully at this passage and try to understand it in the proper context. To do that we must go back into Acts 4. Remember, the church was newborn, in all its pristine beauty and freshness and vitality. It was yet unstained by gross sin or human failure. The people were intensely studying the apostles’ doctrine. Those early days of church history were bright, happy days, full of love and real fellowship. The joy was overwhelming, and the love was deep and all-inclusive; consequently their testimony was loud and clear.
The results were that some fifteen to twenty thousand had come to faith in Jesus Christ in just a few weeks’ time. Already Satan had tried by persecution to thwart the purpose of the church. It made no difference; the believers only prayed for more boldness. God answered that prayer, and even more people were saved. God was very real; Christ was very much alive; and the Holy Spirit was displayed in great power in those days.
But Satan was already plotting a more dangerous attack. If he couldn’t destroy the church by an external assault of persecution, he would try the more subtle internal approach. And that is exactly what happened.
Sin in the Camp
Of all the firsts in Acts, this occasion is the saddest—it is the first recorded sin in the church. Satan’s strategy of infiltrating the church began at this time, and it is still continuing today.
This entire account is a classic example of the Bible’s stubborn honesty. God could have given us a soft-focus picture of the church with all the imperfections hidden. But Scripture never leaves the truth out—even when it is painful and ugly. The church is not perfect and never has been.
Some people use that as an excuse to stay away: “I’d go to church, but there are too many hypocrites.” I always think, Well, we have room for one more. The objection itself is hypocritical. Of course there are hypocrites in the church. That’s one of the truths we glean from this account in Acts 5. So there’s a sense in which a passage like this can be an encouragement, not because of the sin it describes, but because it shows the early church grappled with exactly the same kind of problems we have today.
Even the apostle Paul must have sometimes been discouraged by problems he encountered in the churches. In 2 Corinthians 11:24–27, he gave a list of all the kinds of trials and persecution he had endured:
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Then in conclusion he adds this, the supreme trial of all: “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches” (v. 28). He wasn’t talking about administration; he was speaking of the battle to bring believers to maturity.
Beginning with this incident in Acts 5, the sins of the saints became a perpetual problem for the church. Every epistle Paul wrote in the New Testament included something of major consequence about sin in the church. In Romans 16:17–18 he wrote, “I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.” The Corinthian church was overrun with problems: divisions, strife, immorality, misuse of spiritual gifts, and so on. The Galatians were tolerant of false teaching and legalism (cf. Galatians 3:1–4). Paul had to entreat the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, to be humble and gentle, patiently showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1–4). He had to urge the Philippians to be like-minded, united in peace, intent on one purpose (Philippians 2:1–2). He even named two women, Euodia and Syntyche, whom he wanted to get along with one another (Philippians 4:2–3). In Colossians 3 Paul repeats a whole list of spiritual deficiencies, capped by a command for the Colossians to clean up their lives.
Paul unrelentingly waged war against sin in the church.
A Sharing Community
The church had begun as a sharing community. Acts 4:32–37 says,
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.
They Had True Spiritual Unity
The congregation had already burgeoned and blossomed to include thousands of people, and they were continually multiplying. Nevertheless, they “were of one heart and soul.” It was not just that they all belonged to the same organization, but that they had true spiritual unity. They believed as one. They thought as one. They were in the truest sense a body, a single organism with one heartbeat and one soul (cf. Philippians 1:27). They were preoccupied with each other and preaching the gospel. They were too busy with those priorities to worry about their own selves. Everyone was caring for everyone else, so everyone’s needs were met. Selfishness was therefore rendered unnecessary. What a beautiful kind of preoccupation that was! How rich and sweet their fellowship must have been!
They Shared All Their Possessions
Many people misunderstand this passage. “All things were common property to them” does not mean these people lived in a commune. Remember, at Pentecost, Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who came for the feast. During religious feasts, as many as a million people would come to Jerusalem. They obviously needed housing and food, and there weren’t enough inns to accommodate everyone. So it was customary for believers to open their homes and allow people to live with them. Suddenly, at Pentecost on this particular year, hundreds of these people embraced Christ, and then began to win their friends and families to Him. Surely many of them remained in Jerusalem to sit under the apostles’ teaching.
The financial pressures on these people and their hosts must have been tremendous. In addition, there were many poor people in Jerusalem. And some believers’ income may have been cut off when they testified of their faith in Christ. To deal with these things, all believers were willing to share what they had.
This was not a commune. People did not drop out of society, quit their jobs, pool their money, and live in a common building or camp. Acts 2 describes what they were doing:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (vv. 44–47).
People were selling their possessions—their land holdings and their portable goods—and sharing the proceeds when they knew others had needs. Paul commanded giving in this same spirit. He urged the Corinthians to be generous in giving to the needs of the saints in Macedonia, “your abundance being a supply for their need, that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). Is that any different from what we do today? Not if our churches are healthy. Christians who see a brother or sister in need should have a natural desire to supply the need (cf. 1 John 3:17). That’s what these early Christians were doing. Those who sold possessions did so completely voluntarily. This becomes a crucial point when we examine the sin of Ananias and Sapphira.
They Were Nourished by Powerful Preaching
“With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection” (Acts 4:33). The preaching was bold and powerful. They were not ashamed of the gospel, though there was much persecution in those days. In fact, it specifically says they were preaching about the resurrection. That is the very truth that got them in the most trouble. At the beginning of this same chapter we learn that the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and the Sadducees, “being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (v. 2), seized Peter and John and threw them in jail. Peter and John weren’t trying to win approval from the Sadducees and priests by preaching a message they wanted to hear! They boldly proclaimed the very thing that most offended them! They refused to tone down the great doctrines of the Word of God to eliminate the offense. They never suppressed the biblical message because someone might be offended.
The apostles’ preaching ministry included teaching as well as evangelism. Acts 2:42 says that those who believed “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” This was a well-fed but voracious flock.
The Jerusalem church would have been a wonderful place of fellowship. They did not follow any of the contemporary user-friendly marketing techniques, but the fellowship was, warm and real. They lovingly met one another’s actual needs. And they had rich and ample teaching. Acts 2:42 tells us, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” None of that was designed to attract unbelievers. Nevertheless, new people kept coming because the Lord kept adding to the church day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
A Positive Role Model
Luke records how resources were shared among needy believers. Those with surplus property and possessions sold them, then placed the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34–35). The apostles distributed the funds to those who had needs. Through that simple system, all the needs were met (v. 34). That is essentially the same system we use today when we take an offering in the church. The money goes into a common fund, where the leaders of the church have the responsibility for stewardship of it.
Barnabas is the specific example Luke chose to show a spiritual role model. Barnabas was a nickname, meaning “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Apparently this man, “Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth,” had the gift of exhortation, so he was given a nickname that fit. Barnabas later accompanied the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey.
Barnabas was a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Israel. It is unlikely that he, a priest, would have been a very wealthy man. But somehow he had acquired a piece of property. He sold it. Then he brought the money to the apostles to be distributed. He didn’t ask for recognition. He didn’t try to control how the money was used. He just turned it over. What is clear from Acts chapter 4 is that Barnabas gave from love out of a pure heart—just for the blessedness of giving. And we can assume that a whole lot of others in the Jerusalem church did the same thing.
But not everyone. The story that follows makes a startling contrast to the tone of Acts 4. That is where we will pick up next time.
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel.)