This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
What do finances have to do with faithfulness? Luke’s second report on the economics of the early church (Acts 4:32–5:16) almost duplicates the last one (cf. Acts 2:44–45, 4:32, 34): early Christians met the needs of the believing community through rigorous generosity. A church’s handling of money says a lot about its health. And Luke’s case studies, featuring Barnabas and a married couple—Ananias and Sapphira, make the story personal. If generosity gauges one’s faith, am I more like Barnabas or Ananias?
A Financial Statement
Overall, Luke’s report is positive. Even though many of the believers were poor (James 2:5), every need was met. And the gospel went forth in power.
The church’s financial faithfulness reveals important principles. First, givers and receivers are connected in heart and soul (Acts 4:32). In faithful churches, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Believers who love the same Lord, are baptized by the same Spirit, and share the same heart desires are also united in generosity.
Second, givers understand the spiritual significance of generosity. Sandwiched in this financial report, Luke says that the apostles “were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 5:33). Proclaiming Christ truly is the mission of the church. But that mission doesn’t happen without financial support. Without giving the apostles go back to fishing for a living.
Third, givers are motivated by the grace of God. “Great grace was on them all” (Act 5:33). Grace is God’s unmerited favor. We can’t earn a single good thing. The greatest gift, Jesus, comes from the greatest giver, God. Stinginess is a sure sign that we have lost sight of God’s grace. Our treasure always reveals our hearts (Matt. 6:21).
The budget of the Jerusalem church gave evidence for its health. The church financially prioritized gospel preaching, outreach, and diaconal care.
Two Case Studies in Generosity
The examples of Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira are rich with parallels. Both sold land and laid the money at the apostles’ feet. Neither was forced to sell the land or give away any of the proceeds. But there are striking differences: one gift was offered in sincerity and faith, the other in deceit and unbelief.
Barnabas is a major character in the early Christian community. He helped persuade the Jerusalem church that Paul was truly converted and a sincere gospel minister (Acts 9:27). He later joined Paul on a missionary journey through Asia Minor. He was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). It is no surprise that he’s first introduced as a cheerful giver. Quiet, honest generosity is a prerequisite to gospel usefulness.
Ananias and Sapphira couldn’t have been more different. God killed them not because of inadequate giving but because of a deeper problem of which their pretentious offering was only a symptom. Controlled by Satan (Acts 5:3) and governed by self-love, they exaggerated their generosity to gain praise from others. Congregational life—including the offering—was all about them. Even in the act of giving they wanted not to serve but to be served.
Amid skepticism of the church’s message and opposition to her ministry, Luke’s progress report is encouraging. He notes that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things … the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:11, 13). No one fears a lukewarm church. This is why the church must still exercise spiritual discipline, to send a message that playing religion is always deadly. The church is healthiest when she is so on mission that hypocrites have no safe place in her.
The Lord also performed signs and wonders among the church (Acts 5:12, 15, 16). Through these signs, the recently outpoured Spirit both showed God’s compassion upon “the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits” (Acts 5:16) and proved God’s goodness despite his judgment against Ananias and Sapphira. Judgment is God’s strange work (Isa. 28:2), his “foreign deed. It is work that he is backward to: he rather delights in showing mercy, and does not afflict willingly.”[i] God is only a terror to committed sinners. The signs also prove that God is not simply saving souls. He is “restoring all things” (Acts 3:21). Sickness and uncleanness are out of place in God’s design and will have no place in future paradise.
Finally, the church grew. The Lord added new believers to their numbers (Acts 5:14). It’s no accident that Luke’s church-growth reports accompany believers’ faithfulness. The most basic plan for church growth is the costly commitment of existing members who put each other first, are sincere in confessing their sin, and trust only in the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
God’s work doesn’t depend on our generosity. He worked signs and wonders through the apostles despite the stinginess of some of the church members. But the miserly members never experienced Jesus’s promise that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).” They tried to gain the world but lost their souls (Mark 8:36). Church leaders never forced early Christians to be generous. They didn’t have to. Generosity always flows from hearts that have been changed by God’s grace.
[i] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 4.155,b