A Contrast In Generosity (4:32-5:11)

Bible Passage: Acts 4:32-5:11

These verses speak of the life of the early church and particularly focus on the area of generosity and sharing possessions. As well as describing the generosity of the church as a whole, two particular individual cases are highlighted and are meant to be seen as a contrast to one another. Both involve the people giving but the big differences are the motives behind why they gave and the outcome for those involved.

Gospel Generosity: In v32-37 we get the description of how the early Jerusalem church had become a generous people. They were of ‘one heart and soul’ and did not claim private ownership of possessions. From what follows it is clear that this doesn’t mean that nobody had anything, but it does mean that they held their possessions lightly and as soon as they saw a need emerging in the community they sold what they owned in order to meet that need. A particular example that shows this in action is Barnabas, who sold a field and brought the money to the apostles for them to use however they saw fit. Throughout Acts Barnabas lives up to his nickname as a ‘son of encouragement’ as we see him showing generosity not only with his possessions but also in the way he treat people. Verse 33 plays an important role in this passage. The generosity of these believers did not come from nowhere, and it is highlighted that they were constantly reminded of the good news of the resurrection of Christ and were living in an experience of God’s grace. It is the outworking of this gospel in their midst that resulted in them being generous with their finances.

Selfish Generosity: In 5:1-11 we see the giving of Ananias and Sapphira, which is set in contrast with Barnabas. Just like Barnabas they sold some property and brought money to the apostles, but rather than bring everything they decided to give part of the money and keep the rest for themselves. The text makes clear that there is nothing wrong with this. The property was theirs and the money was theirs, and they were free to do with it whatever they wanted. The problem was not in how much they gave but in the fact that they lied about it. Though they had chosen to give part of the money, they said they had given all of it, and this exposed what was going on in their hearts. For them giving was more about what people thought of them than about the help it would do, and they perhaps saw how Barnabas was regarded after his gift and wanted to be thought of similarly. After both Ananias and Sapphira had lied (independently) to Peter, each of them dropped down dead. This is not the main focus of the sermon, but it does need addressing. It seems clear that this is an act of judgment and it is meant as a parallel to Joshua 7, showing greed being quickly dealt with in the context of new beginnings. It is not normative for how we see God working in the rest of the book of Acts and the New Testament as a whole and so should not be seen as normative for us today.

Potential Applications:

  • You might want to use this sermon to speak about people’s regular giving to church, or if you have a special offering around the time of your Acts series, you could tie it in to that.
  • The challenge to lay before people is not only to give (as Ananias and Sapphira did that) but to think about the heart behind their giving.
  • It is also a good opportunity to invite people to consider their attitude to their possessions and whether they are willing to hold them as loosely as these early believers did.