Over Thanksgiving break during my sophomore year of college in 1987, Walt Baker asked me to consider going to Haiti on a 9-week missions trip with him and others the following summer. As a struggling college student, finances were tight to say the least. I anticipated needing to save money and work all summer long to have enough for my junior year. But Walt – ever the encourager – simply asked me to pray about it. The next time I saw him over Christmas break, he asked me what I had decided about going to Haiti. I gave him the same reasons and excuses why I didn’t think I could go. He suggested I contact some friends, send out some letters asking people to pray for me and, also, consider supporting me. With not much faith but with much more encouragement from him, I did. When Walt called in April, I told him that I simply wasn’t able to go. He said, “Of course, you’re going! Your trip has already been covered. Why don’t you trust God to provide for what you need for the Fall, too?” To this day, I don’t know how God provided for all I needed or from whom but, He did. The faithful provision of the Lord Jesus through the generous giving of His church encouraged me to go and serve the Lord. There’s no doubt – I’m a pastor today because of Walt Baker and those 9 weeks in Haiti.
In the early church, we see the great encouragement that came from another encourager: Barnabas. Due to persecution from Jewish leaders, the Jerusalem believers in Jesus were suffering. To help one another, members of the church sold property and goods and used the money to provide for those in need (Acts 4:32-35). It seems there were many who were selling their land, even houses, and contributing the money to the church.
We see the motives of sacrificial giving from the specific example of Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37). Joseph from Cyprus is nick-named, Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement”. We see him encouraging others wherever he appears in the Bible. In Acts 4, however, we see how Barnabas was a great encourager by the way he used the resources God had given him.
We see from the early church and the example of Barnabas how sacrificial giving encourages others.
Sacrificial giving is driven by a passion for God and His people. The generosity of God’s people for each other was not from coercive legislation or government taxation, but from a true unity of hearts made possible by regeneration by God’s Spirit. Their sacrifices were out of love for God. Their giving was voluntary. Their selflessness flowed out of their love for each other. Barnabas is an example of such a loving, sacrificial giver – driven by a passion for Jesus and His body. He wasn’t from Jerusalem, he was from Cyprus. There was no obligation for him to do anything and, yet, he willingly sold a field he owned. Giving is not sacrificial unless it has cost us something.
Sacrificial giving is directed to the place where there is a need. Luke records, “no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Since they believed that everything they had was God’s, they were free to use it where and how His spirit led them. When Barnabas recognized the needs of people, he brought what he had and, like others in the church, “laid it at the apostles’ feet” in order for them to make decisions where there was a need.
Sacrificial giving is designated to the priorities of the Church. Notice that Barnabas didn’t give his money conditionally or give to people directly. He “brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” It’s a way of expressing obedience and submission. Here it indicates giving control of resources over to the apostles. Barnabas gave his money to the leaders of the church to distribute in light of the priorities of the church as the Lord led them. If you give things with strings or conditions, you really haven’t given it. I heard stories from other pastors of people saying, “I pay your salary…” as a way of control or manipulation.
From the beautiful picture of unity, harmony, and community in Acts 4, we move into chapter 5 where sin raises its ugly head in the church. “But” (Acts 5:1) introduces another act of giving that looked just as generous as Barnabas’, however, in this case the motive was selfish.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of their own land, too, but, they decided to keep some of the proceeds for themselves while giving the appearance to the church that they were giving it all to the Lord (Acts 5:1-10). This is the essence of hypocrisy, isn’t it? Doing one thing while giving the appearance of another? In order to establish a precedent up front in the early church, God dealt severely with their hypocrisy.
Selfish living is prompted by a desire for personal recognition. Why did Ananias and Sapphira do what they did? Perhaps they craved special recognition by the leadership. Applause or acceptance or acclaim may have been overly important to them. Maybe it was their envy of Barnabas (and others) was a motivation for their actions. It appears they wanted the same recognition without the same sacrifice.
Selfish living is planned deception of ourselves and others. The verb for “kept back” (Acts 5:2) is a verb tied to financial fraud. It was planned. It was deceptive. Their sin was not impulsive, their con was something they calculated together. Peter says , they “agreed to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5:9).
We need to be clear about why Ananias and Sapphira died. It was not because they didn’t give all the money from the sale of their land. They died because they lied and tried to deceive God and the leaders of the church. While it may be possible to lie to others and even lie to ourselves and get away with it, it’s never possible to lie to God.
Selfish living is partial commitment disguised as total commitment. We share Ananias’ and Sapphira’s sin not when others think we are more committed than we are, but when we try to make others think we are more committed than we are. Examples of their sin today include: creating the impression we are people of prayer when we are not; making it look like we have it all together when we do not; promoting the idea that we are more generous than we are, boasting or bragging about all we’ve done for or given to the Lord.
Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira about their hypocrisy. Their story is a call to confront ourselves. Do I practice spiritual deceit? Do I attempt to make others think I am more committed than I am? These are serious questions. In the larger picture, it is a matter of life and death—maybe not our own, but someone else’s—perhaps our children, our grandchildren, our relatives, our neighbors. Nothing is more destructive to the reputation of the church and the relationship of believers than the selfishness of hypocrisy. As a pastor, I recognize nothing could be more destructive to my wife and our kids relationship with Jesus than the hypocrisy of how I give and live. It’s really no different for any of us as parents or grandparents – my life is just more public.
Selfish hypocrisy is serious to God! When we lie to believers, we are not lying to them but to God (Acts 5:4). As a result, Ananias (vs. 5) and Sapphira (vs. 10) dropped dead at the apostles’ feet.
By considering the giving of the early church (and Barnabas as an example), the encouraging results of sacrificial giving and living are simple and easy for all to see.
First, the Lord Jesus is glorified. The power in the church’s witness of Jesus was their love for one another. By their sacrificial giving, “they were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). The name of Jesus and the power of His resurrection was evident by their sacrifice to the Lord and for one another.
Second, the church is unified. “Those who believed [in Jesus] were of one heart and soul…” Their love and sense of responsibility for one another resulted in unity. More than just words, their actions demonstrated their common bond in Christ. The way you and I sacrificially give our time, our talents, and our treasures is a great encouragement to others.
Third, our lives are edified. “Great grace was on all of them.” The abundant grace that rested upon these Christians was the divine enablement that God granted them to give and to live as they did. When we give to the Lord and live for Him, our lives our edified. In Acts 5:11, Luke explains that as a result of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, “great fear came on the whole church.” They began to honestly assess what God wanted of them and where they were in their spiritual lives.
When we sacrificially give to the Lord Jesus and serve Him with our lives, He is glorified, the church is unified, and our lives are edified.
During the summer of 1988 in Haiti, my life was changed because of the generous giving of others, God’s provision to meet my needs for college, the joy of the Lord I witnessed by the impoverished believers in Haiti, the unity of the body of Christ, and the encouragement of a faithful encourager.
Walt Baker has been a Barnabas, a Son of Encouragement, to me. And countless others around the world.
Follow me…as I follow Walt’s example…and follow Jesus Christ.