According to Acts 2:42-47 the first century church was devoted to the Word of God (i.e. apostles’ teaching), fellowship, the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the breaking of bread), prayer, and, as we noted in the previous article, involvement. It was also devoted to benevolent activity. Throughout the book of Acts the church is depicted as a people who denounced materialism and adopted a communal lifestyle in order to meet the needs of the poor. In other words, they emphasized benevolence.
In Acts 2:45 we are told that the believers “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Then, in Acts 4:32 we are told that among the believers “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” and a couple of verses later we learn that “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 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Such descriptions point to a giving mindset in the early church. But why did the first century church place such a great emphasis on benevolence?
The first century church emphasized benevolence because Jesus commanded His followers to be benevolent.
In Matthew 5:42 Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you,” and then went on to talk about the proper attitude to have “when you give to the needy.” Notice the use of the word “when.” It indicates that Jesus expected His followers to be benevolent. Later Jesus instructed His disciples to “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33). As we’ve already noted, the church is described as a people who met the needs of the poor by selling their possessions and providing assistance to anyone found in need (Acts 2:45; 4:32, 34-35). This description shows that the church fulfilled Jesus’ command regarding the selling of possessions for the benefit of the poor in Luke 12:33. Paul echoed Jesus’ giving instructions when he told the Christians in Rome to “Contribute to the needs of saints” (Romans 12:13), and the church in Galatia to “do good to everyone and especially to those who are of the household of faith” as the opportunity arises (Galatians 6:10).
The first century church emphasized benevolence because they recognized that we are just stewards of the funds entrusted to us by God.
A steward is “a person who manages another's property or financial affairs.” Evidence of a steward mentality among the early church can be seen in the fact that the first century church stopped referring to their possessions as “mine.” Luke’s narrative in Acts 4:32 demonstrates this change of mindset when it says that “neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own.” Maybe the early Christians recognized that the servants who were found faithful in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) were the ones who understood their role as a steward and used the funds entrusted to them for the benefit of the Master’s kingdom. Or, maybe they recognized that Jesus said “Render…to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:25-21), but He never said, “render to yourself the things that are your own.”
The first century church emphasized benevolence because they understood that worldly treasures are only temporary.
The author of Hebrews praised the Christians to whom he was writing because they “had compassion on those in prison, and…joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property, [because they] knew that [they] had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34). Notice that they “joyfully accepted” the confiscation of their property because they understood that a greater reward awaited them. This description of the first century church aligns itself with an understanding of what Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-20 about “lay[ing] up…treasures in heaven” rather than “treasures on earth” because the former, unlike the latter, is incorruptible.
The first century church emphasized benevolence because Jesus associated benevolence with the kingdom.
The Rich Ruler was instructed by Jesus to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” in order to inherit “eternal life” (Luke 18:22), but the Rich Ruler was saddened by these instructions. As a result, Jesus responded with a harsh critique of people absorbed with materialism, saying, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Zacchaeus appeared on the scene just one chapter later and voluntarily gave half of his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8). His sacrificial actions caused Jesus to proclaim, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Since Zacchaeus’ benevolent actions resulted in his household receiving “salvation” and the Rich Ruler’s materialism and greed caused him to walk away from “the kingdom of God,” we can conclude that discipleship necessitates benevolent mindedness. And, let’s not forget the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) in which Jesus indicated that the sheep will “inherit the kingdom” because they gave food to the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the imprisoned. Meanwhile, He indicated that the goats will be dismissed “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” because they did not give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, they did not welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the imprisoned. The comparison between the Rich Ruler and Zacchaeus as well as the distinction between the sheep and the goats seems to indicate that those who will receive eternal are those who are willing to care for the poor, while those who cling to their material wealth will be excluded from such a reward.
The lesson for us to glean from the first century church’s devotion to benevolence is that our wealth, no matter how great or small, is entrusted to us by God, who is our Master. That means that our wealth is really His wealth, and, as a result, we will give an account to Him one day for how we used it. And, if we want to hear the words “Well done good and faithful servant” rather than “You wicked and lazy servant” then we, too, should be devoted to benevolence.