With the rapid growth of Christianity in Jerusalem members faced some unique challenges and needs. The church began on Pentecost in AD30, with about three thousand accepting the gospel. These converts were Jews, many of whom had traveled to Jerusalem from around the world to celebrate Pentecost. (Acts 2:8-11) They had probably been there fifty days earlier to commemorate the Passover and stayed for Pentecost. These Christians remained in Jerusalem to worship God and grow in their new faith. (Acts 2:42)
In Acts three and four we read about another occasion of great response to the gospel. Around five thousand men believed what Peter said about Christ. While we don’t know the exact number of Christians by the end of Acts four, we do know thousands had obeyed God’s saving message.
Think about the logistics associated with so many obeying the gospel in such a short period of time and in one location. Add to the equation that many had no home or job in Jerusalem. They had given up Judaism for Christianity and so the normal support provided by their old faith ended. It had to be difficult for everyone, with the potential of causing strife and trouble for the new saints. (Acts 6:1)
While these circumstances challenged the Lord’s church, they also provided an opportunity for extraordinary love and sacrifice. Instead of thinking about themselves and their own interests, they immediately took steps to provide for those in need. They “had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (Acts 2:44-45) “Those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. (Acts 4:32) “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. (Acts 4:34-35)
While charity work and benevolence are not exclusive to God’s people, the degree of sacrifice described in Acts two and four is unusual. We often hear about large endowments given by wealthy people or their great works of charity, but what have they given up? If a multibillionaire gives a billion dollars to some cause he still has more than he needs. Millionaires or billionaires are not the only ones who give out of their abundance. We may all fall into this category if we only give when it doesn’t “hurt”. Remember the churches of Macedonia. Paul described those Christians as being in “deep poverty” themselves and yet they freely gave “beyond their ability”. (2 Cor. 8:2-3)
The earliest local church held together and prospered by their deep love for God and one another. Their benevolence and sacrifice showed a strong faith and commitment to Christ. They had a new family, a spiritual family, and they wanted nothing more than to help and care for their needs. Some people do good for the wrong reasons, but not these Christians. No one would make the sacrifices they did for a pat on the back or the praise of men.
This brings us to Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5:1-11) They had witnessed the benevolence of so many Christians. While others had not done these acts to get praise, I’m sure they received admiration. It seems that Ananias and Sapphira were caught up in the “glory” of giving. After they sold a piece of property they gave a portion of the money to the apostles.
On the surface, what they did is commendable. The land was theirs, the funds were theirs, and they had no obligated to sell nor give any part of the money. The problem is they lied about the amount given, claiming they gave the whole sum from the sale. I can imagine if others gave all from their sales Ananias and Sapphire might feel pressure to do the same. However, the pressure wasn’t from God or the apostles, but their own perverse desire for glory. They conspired together in this deceit, and so both bore equal culpability.
Peter confronted each of them separately, beginning with Ananias who was the one who brought the money to the apostles. He accused Ananias of allowing Satan to fill his heart to lie to the Holy Spirit. People may think they can get away with lies, but God knows. Because he tried to deceive the apostles and lied to God, God struck him dead.
About three hours later, Sapphira came in and Peter questioned her about the incident. She was unaware of what had happened to her husband. Sapphira continued the lie and suffered the same fate as her husband.
The point is, we need to be careful not to turn a good work into evil. A good heart and proper motivation will lead us to do what is right simply because it is right. It is also possible to do what is right for self glory and personal honor rather than giving God credit. (1 Cor. 13:1-3) Credit goes to God for the good works of the early Christians, but when we seek praise for ourselves the glory goes to us. The early church could not have prospered under these conditions; neither can it today if we are promoting self. Give God the glory and credit for all that you do.