THE CHURCH AT WORK
“It was about this time that some prophets came to Antioch from Jerusalem. One of them named Agabus stood up one day and, prompted by the Spirit, warned that a severe famine was about to devastate the country. (The famine eventually came during the rule of Claudius). So the disciples decided that each of them would send whatever they could to their fellow Christians in Judea to help out. They sent Barnabas and Saul to deliver the collection to the leaders in Jerusalem.” Acts 11:27-30 (The Message).
This was the church at work, doing life together across racial, cultural, social and even geographical divides. The church in the Roman Empire was a culture within a culture, living as a family unit in a hostile, anti-God environment, caring for and supporting one another and sharing their resources so that everyone had enough.
The prophetic ministry was part of this family life, not a kind of Christian “fortune-telling” to satisfy curiosity about the future but to prepare for disaster in advance in the same way as God prepared Egypt through Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation.
Generosity was taught to the Israelites in the constitution of the Old Covenant. God taught them how to take care of one another so that there would be equality and a minimum of poverty among the people. They were to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to glean. They were to set up freed slaves with enough to save them from sliding back into poverty and inevitable slavery again.
Their system of tithes and offerings took care of all those for whom they were responsible – their high priest, their priests, their families and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien. They did not leave the care of the needy to the government. Their government operated through their religious system under God.
In the early church resources were used serve, not to hoard. What they had they did not regard as exclusively theirs. It was on loan from God to be used for the common good. Human nature is still today what it was then — enslaved by greed. There was one clear test of a new heart — how did they treat their possessions?
The Apostle Paul accurately diagnosed the root of all evil in the world as not money but as the love of money. Jesus made it clear that it is impossible for anyone to serve two masters, God and Mammon. Mammon is not money per se; it is the demonic stronghold that money sets up in the heart of a greedy person. When the love of money grips a person’s heart, believer or not, he cannot be a lover of God.
Since Jesus spoke more about money than anything else, it must be true that our attitude to, and the way we handle our money is the measure of our commitment to Him. The money and possessions God entrusts to us are a part of our equipment with which we show the love of God to fellow believers and to the unbelieving world.
Love is a very practical thing. John put it this way: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 3:17 (NIV).
The generosity of the believers in the early church was spontaneous. They did not have to be cajoled, bullied or begged to share their resources with brothers and sisters in Judea. It was their first response to the approaching famine.
The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” is as much about withholding from those who need your help as it is about taking what does not belong to you. God indicted His own people through the prophet Malachi. “‘Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse — the whole nation of you — because you are robbing me.'” Malachi 3:8, 9 (NIV).
How many robbers are sitting in our churches, believing they are disciples of Jesus but under a curse and excluded from the kingdom because they are takers and not givers?