Explore the Bible: Acts 4:32-37
Squeezed in between the account of the onset of persecution and the story of Ananias and Sapphira is this short description of life in the early church. Given that many of early Christiands living in Jerusalem were not from the city or its environs, there was a need to find a way to take care of their physical needs. The powerful work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts, minds, and lives of the believers led them to treat each other as extended family. (It is possible, though not stated here, that some who followed Jesus may have become ostracized from their more traditionally Jewish families.) The members of the fledgling church took care of each other by sharing what they had with those who had need.
This picture of the early church is often used to promote a political system. Some say the church pioneered a form of communism; others call it socialism. In truth, it is neither of these, nor any other political system. This passage describes the voluntary sharing of wealth with fellow believers who had needs under the influence of the Holy Spirit due to a commitment to the teaching of the apostles about Jesus. There is no government involvement here, not even a church government. There is not only no hint of coercion, which is required by a political system, we don’t even read of a suggestion by the apostles or anyone else that this be done. It was apparently a spontaneous reaction to the joy found in coming to Jesus through the preaching of the gospel,
While this isn’t something that was forced, the example of the early Christians should serve to show us the kind of generosity believers ought to be known for. Nothing that we own belongs to us in any ultimate sense. Everything we own is a gift from God, and we need to see it that way. Christians should not have to wait for a secular government or a church body to tell us to share what we have with others and to have compassion on those in need.
One generous giver is highlighted in these verses. Joseph, who had been born in Cyprus and was from the tribe of Levi, now resided in Jerusalem or its vicinity. He was wealthy enough to own land, and well-known enough that the disciples gave him another name: Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.” As we will see later in the book of Acts, he was a man who was highly respected and who had the ability to see the best in other people. Here Barnabas brings the proceeds of his land sale to the apostles and gives it to them completely and freely for use in the care of those in need. There was no requirement that he sell the field, nor that he give everything he received for the field to the church. This was an act of compassion, love, and grace by one who had been touched by Christ.
It may seem like just a passing mention, but this passage sets up the encounter between Peter and Ananias and Sapphira. It is the display of generosity by Barnabas (and, presumably, others like him) that tempts Ananias and Sapphira to gain credit for themselves by pretending to do the same thing. Again, they were under no compulsion to sell their land, nor did they have to give all of it to the apostles. Yet the desire to be seen to be as spiritual as Barnabas led them to misrepresent themselves before Peter and the church, and to attempt to lie even to the Holy Spirit.
Both Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira served as examples to the early church. As we live our own Christian lives out before others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, we should watch carefully what kind of example we set. Not only is God watching all that we do, but often others are as well. We might even be the example someone who is new to the faith is looking at to see how someone who claims to be a Christian lives. While we won’t be perfect in this life, we can seek to be sons and daughters of encouragement for those around us by living out grace, compassion, and truth every day.