Develop Christian Relationships

 

Week of November 11, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Acts 4:32-35; 5:1-6; 6:1-7.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about being intentionally involved in the lives of people around us, especially within the church family.

 

Share with One Another:  Acts 4:32-35.

 

[32]  Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. [33]  And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [34]  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold [35]  and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  [ESV]

 

[32-35]  Luke has just recorded that, in answer to their prayers, the believers were freshly filled with the Holy Spirit [31]. The immediate result was that they continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Thus they ignored the Sanhedrin’s ban, and their witness was characterized by both boldness and power. Indeed, great grace was upon them all, an expression which may describe their spirit of generosity. Luke does not leave it there, however. He is concerned to show that the fullness of the Spirit is manifest in deed as well as word, service as well as witness, love for the family as well as testimony to the world. So, just as after the first coming of the Spirit he describes the characteristics of the Spirit-filled community [2:42-47], so after they are again filled with the Spirit he provides a second description [4:32-37]. Moreover in both cases his emphasis is the same. All who believed were together [2:44], as they devoted themselves to the fellowship [2:42], and they were of one heart and soul [4:32]. This was the fundamental solidarity of love which the believers enjoyed, and their economic sharing was but one expression of the union of their hearts and minds. It is instructive to compare Luke’s two pictures of the same united, Spirit-filled church in Jerusalem. Although the accounts are verbally independent of one another, he mentions in each the same three consequences of their mutual commitment. The first is their radical attitude, in particular to their possessions. They had everything in common. In the light of Peter’s later statement to Ananias that his property was his own [5:4], we cannot press these words into meaning that the believers had literally renounced private, in favor of common, ownership. Although in fact and in law they continued to own their goods, yet in heart and mind they cultivated an attitude so radical that they thought of their possessions as being available to help their needy sisters and brothers. Secondly, their radical attitude led to sacrificial action, namely that they sold their possessions and put the money at the apostles’ feet for them to use to provide for the needy among the believers. The same actions of selling and distributing are referred to in 2:45. In both cases the selling was voluntary and sporadic (from time to time), as the need for ready cash arose. Thirdly, both the radical attitude and the practical action were based on the equitable principle that distribution was proportionate to genuine need. The two accounts use the identical words referring to anyone who had need. In seeking to evaluate the so-called ‘Jerusalem experiment’, we shall be wise to avoid extreme positions. We have no liberty to dismiss it as a rash and foolish mistake, motivated by the false expectation of an imminent Parousia and causing the poverty, which Paul had later to remedy by his collection from the Greek churches. Luke gives no hint of these things. Nor can we say, however, that the Jerusalem church, being filled with the Spirit, laid down an obligatory model – a kind of primitive Christian ‘communism’ – which God wants all Spirit-filled communities to copy. The fact that the selling and giving were voluntary is enough to dispose of this. What we should surely do, instead, is to note and seek to imitate the care of the needy and the sacrificial generosity which the Holy Spirit created.

 

Deal with Sin Appropriately:  Acts 5:1-6.

 

[1]  But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, [2]  and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. [3]  But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? [4]  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." [5]  When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. [6]  The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.  [ESV]

 

[1-6]  The story of the deceit and death of this married couple is important for several reasons. It illustrates the honesty of Luke as a historian; he did not suppress this sordid episode. It throws light on the interior life of the first Spirit-filled community; it was not all romance and righteousness. It is also a further example of the strategy of Satan. To all appearances, Barnabas [4:36-37] and Ananias did the same thing. Both sold a property. Both brought the proceeds of the sale to the apostles, and both committed it to their disposal. The difference was that Barnabas brought all the sale money, while Ananias brought only a proportion. Thus Ananias and Sapphira perpetuated a double sin, a combination of dishonesty and deceit. At first sight, there was nothing wrong in their withholding part of the sale money. As Peter plainly said later, their property was their own both before and after the sale [4]. So they were under no obligation to sell their piece of land or, having sold it, to give away any – let alone all – of the proceeds. That is not the whole story, however. There is something else, something half-hidden. For Luke, in declaring that Ananias kept back part of the money for himself, chooses the Greek verb which means ‘to misappropriate’ or ‘to steal’. We have to assume, therefore, that before the sale Ananias and Sapphira had entered into some kind of contract to give the church the total amount raised. Because of this, when they brought only some instead of all, they were guilty of embezzlement. It was not on this sin that Peter concentrated, however, but on the other, hypocrisy. The apostle’s complaint was not that they lacked honesty (bringing only a part of the sale price) but that they lacked integrity (bringing only a part, while pretending to bring the whole). They were not so much misers as thieves and – above all – liars. They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego. Peter saw behind Ananias’ hypocrisy the subtle activity of Satan [3]. Peter accused him both of misappropriation and of falsehood, both of stealing and then of lying about it. But there was no need for either sin since the property belonged to Ananias and Sapphira both before and after the sale [4]. We note in passing that Peter assumes the deity of the Holy Spirit, since to lie to Him [3] was to lie to God [4]. No reply from Ananias to Peter’s indictment and questions is recorded. Luke tells us only that God’s judgment fell upon him: he fell down and breathed his last [5]. Understandably great fear, the solemnity which is experienced in the presence of the holy God, came upon all who heard of it. About three hours later the incident repeated itself with Sapphira [7-8]. Many readers of this story are offended by what they regard as the severity of God’s judgment. But Luke clearly intends us to understand that this event was the work of divine judgment. There are at least three valuable lessons for us to learn. First, the gravity of their sin. Peter stressed this by repeating that their lie was not directed primarily against him, but against the Holy Spirit. Yet the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was also against the church. Luke seems to be underlining the great evil of sinning against God’s people. Falsehood ruins fellowship. If the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira had not been publicly exposed and punished, the Christian ideal of an open fellowship would not have been preserved. The second lesson to be learned concerns the importance, even the sacredness, of the human conscience. Luke will later record Paul’s claim before Felix that he always strove to keep his conscience clear before God and man [Acts 24:16]. This seems to be what John meant by ‘walking in the light’. It is to live a transparent life before God, without guile or subterfuge, whose consequence is that we have fellowship with one another [1 John 1:7]. It is this openness which Ananias and Sapphira failed to maintain. Thirdly, the incident teaches the necessity of church discipline. The church has tended to oscillate in this area between extreme severity (disciplining members for the most trivial offences) and extreme laxity (exercising no discipline at all, even for serious offences). It is a good general rule that secret sins should be dealt with secretly, private sins privately, and only public sins publicly. Churches are also wise if they follow the successive stages taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Usually the offender will be brought to repentance before the final stage of excommunication is reached. But offences which are serious in themselves, have become a public scandal, and have not been repented of, should be judged. We have now seen that, if the devil’s first tactic was to destroy the church by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from within. He has not given up the attempt, whether by the hypocrisy of those who profess but do not practice, or by the stubbornness of those who sin but do not repent. The church must preserve its vigilance.

 

Raise Up Servant Leaders:  Acts 6:1-7.

 

[1]  Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. [2]  And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. [3]  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. [4]  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." [5]  And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. [6]  These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. [7]  And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.  [ESV]

 

[1-7]  The devil’s next attack was the cleverest of the three. Having failed to overcome the church by either persecution or corruption, he now tried distraction. If he could preoccupy the apostles with social administration, which though essential was not their calling, they would neglect their God-given responsibilities to pray and to preach, and so leave the church without any defense against false doctrine. The situation is clear. On the one hand, the number of disciples were increasing in number. On the other hand, the excitement of church growth was tempered by a regrettable complain expressed by murmuring. The complaint concerned the welfare of the widows, whose cause God had promised in the Old Testament to defend. Assuming that they were unable to earn their own living and had no relatives to support them, the church had accepted the responsibility, and a daily distribution of food was made to them. But there were two groups in the Jerusalem church, one called the Hellenists and the other called the Hebrews. What exactly was the identity of these two groups? The distinction goes beyond geography and language to culture. The Hellenists not only spoke Greek but they thought and behaved like Greeks, while the Hebrews not only spoke Aramaic but were deeply immersed in Hebrew culture. So the two groups consisted of Greek Jews and Hebrew Jews. There had always, of course, been rivalry between these groups in Jewish culture; the tragedy is that it was perpetuated within the new community of Jesus who by His death had abolished such distinctions. The issue was more, however, than one of cultural tension. The apostles discerned a deeper problem, namely that social administration (both organizing the distribution and settling the complaint) was threatening to occupy all their time and so inhibit them from the work which Christ had specifically entrusted to them, namely preaching and teaching. The Twelve did not impose a solution on the church, however, but summoned the full number of the disciples in order to share the problem with them. There is no hint whatever that the apostles regarded social work as inferior to pastoral work, or beneath their dignity. It was entirely a question of calling. They had no liberty to be distracted from their own priority task. So they made a proposal to the church in 6:3-4. It is noteworthy that now the Twelve have added prayer to preaching (probably meaning public as well as private intercession) in specifying the essence of the apostles’ ministry [4]. They form a natural couple, since the ministry of the word, without prayer that the Spirit will water the seed, is unlikely to bear fruit. This delegation of social welfare to the Seven is commonly thought to have been the origin of the diaconate. It may be so, for the language of service is used here. Nevertheless, the Seven are not actually called ‘deacons’. The whole gathering was pleased with the apostles’ plan and put it into effect. They chose seven men and presented them to the apostles for them to pray and lay their hands on them, thus commissioning and authorizing them to exercise this ministry. A vital principle is illustrated in this incident, which is of urgent importance to the church today. It is that God calls all His people to ministry, that He calls different people to different ministries, and that those called to prayer and the ministry of the word must on no account allow themselves to be distracted from their priorities. Both the work of the Twelve and the work of the Seven are called ministries in this passage. Neither ministry is superior to the other. On the contrary, both are Christian ministries, that is, ways of serving God and His people. Both require spiritual people, full of the Spirit, to exercise them. And both can be full-time Christian ministries. The only difference between them lies in the form the ministry takes, requiring different gifts and different callings. We do a great disservice to the church whenever we refer to the pastorate as ‘the ministry’, for example when we speak of ordination in terms of ‘entering the ministry’. This use of the definite article implies that the ordained pastorate is the only ministry there is. But all Christians without exception, being followers of Him who came not to be served but to serve, are themselves called to ministry, indeed to give their lives in ministry. But the expression ‘full-time Christian ministry’ is not to be restricted to church work and missionary service; it can also be exercised in government, the media, the professions, business, industry and the home. We need to recover this vision of the wide diversity of ministries to which God calls His people. In particular, it is vital for the health and growth of the church that pastors and people in the local congregation learn this lesson. What is needed is the basic, biblical recognition that God calls different men and women to different ministries. Then the people will ensure that their pastor is set free from unnecessary administration, in order to give himself to the ministry of the word, and the pastor will ensure that the people discover their gifts and develop ministries appropriate to them. As a direct result of the action of the apostles in delegating the social work, in order to concentrate on their pastoral priority, the word of God continued to increase. The two verbs increase and multiplied are in the imperfect tense, indicating that both the spread of the word and the growth of the church were continuous. Verse 7 is the first of six summaries of growth, with which Luke intersperses his narrative. They come at crucial points in his unfolding story [6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-32].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What are the three consequences of mutual commitment that Luke gives in 2:42-47 and 4:32-37?

 

2.         What was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira? What are the three valuable lessons we can learn from this event?

 

3.         Note the devil’s three attacks on the early church: persecution, corruption, and distraction. Observe how Satan still uses these three attacks on the church.

 

4.         What vital principle of ministry do we learn from the incident in 6:1-7?

 

References:

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.