Sermon for Sunday Evening, January 23rd, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 4:32-5:11 ESV] 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. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 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 man 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. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
Well … Workers of the World Unite. <Sarcasm>
This passage in Acts has been the rallying cry for Communists who are desperate to find the Bible supporting their position, even though by their own creed they are supposed to be atheists.
Well, you’ll hear them quote from Acts but you’ll never heard them quote from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 — “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Or Genesis 3:19 – “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
It indeed is never “by the sweat of another you shall eat.” Of course, we are to support widows without children and others that cannot support themselves. But the general rule is that you need to work, and to work to create excess so that you have something to give to others.
If anyone tells you that Acts chapter 4 teaches Communism, just say no.
Of course, it is good to know reasons why the passage doesn’t teach Communism. Merely saying “no” might not get you very far.
The saying in view is especially the one in verse 32 – “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
So I want to look at three reasons why this passage isn’t teaching communism before we look at what the passage is actually teaching.
I. Three reasons why this passage isn’t teaching communism.
First, it is of value to specify what we mean by communism and its near kin, socialism. I’m using the word communism here as the idea that ALL PROPERTY is to be owned collectively by the public; that private property is ruled out. There are others who define communism in saying not that all property is owned collectively, but merely that the “means of production” (the factories and equipment) are publicly owned. But whatever the version of definition one uses, the Communist desire that there be no classes in society and thus if any private property is to be allowed, one person can’t have much more of it than another person. It is supposed to all be equal, undermined the absolute impossibility and insanity of such a scheme. But it is not my place here to make logical critiques of communism; we want to look at Biblical critiques, especially from this very chapter in view.
1. The houses (extra houses mind you) were not shared among all but sold on the market.
Note that “houses” and “lands” are in the plural.
“as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them”
It wasn’t every Christian’s house that was sold, for then they would have nowhere to live. It was the richer among them who sold their extra houses and lands.
And the houses were SOLD … on the market. But the idea of a market is anti-thetical to communism. It is greed, they say, to sell something to the highest bidder rather than just giving it to those most in need. Fortunately the Christians were smarter than the Communists and so they sold their houses, for good money, and used that money to help those in need.
2. Many Christian houses remained in private possession.
The houses that were not sold remained in PRIVATE possession of the owners. Presumably these Christian homeowners would welcome other Christians to their houses, but the houses yet remained as their possession.
In the book of Acts alone we hear of houses which continued to be owned by individual Christians. These include:
“The house of Simon” (Acts 10:17)
“The house of Cornelius) (Acts 10:30)
“The house of Mary, the mother of John” (Acts 12:12)
“The house of Phillip the Evangelist” (Acts 21:8)
If Luke (the author of Acts) were advocating communism or describing communism among the Christians, we wouldn’t hear of privately-owned houses. Under communism or something like it, the Christian houses might have been known by location rather than by their owners.
Now I said I want to stick with Biblical critiques, but it is hard to avoid the logical.
What happens in a state of collective ownership is called “the tragedy of the commons.”
The idea is that when people own their own property they tend to be good stewards of it, but when something is collectively owned, no one takes care of it. Indeed, on the shared land there is an incentive for each person to get what he can before others get to it. So I might cut down the apple trees for the wood to burn before someone else does the same, but if I owned the apple trees I’d keep them standing and enjoy the fruit for many years.
3. Distribution was made not to achieve equality, but to meet need.
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.
The communist would have it say something like “and the proceeds were distributed equally among the Christians.” But the goal in the passage is not equality. If it were, then why do some continue to own houses and lands?!
The Christians were of one heart and soul. Many of the wealthier Christians sold houses and lands to support those in need. The goal was not equality (or equity), but charity.
So we’re getting into what the passage is actually teaching.
II. What the passage is actually teaching.
The passage is teaching that Christians were generous in helping one another.
And this is key – they were generous WITH THEIR OWN MONIES.
That is why Communism and Socialism are such great errors. They advocate helping people WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY. This chases out true charity and devastates economic growth.
Communism and socialism are errors; and not run-of-the-mill ones either, but absolute disasters for all involved. All, that is, but for the few at the top. For in practice Communism doesn’t result in a level playing field, but makes for a bunch of subservient citizen outsiders and government stooge insiders. The money goes not to the most capable craftsman or business owners but to those favorable to the present administration.
Charity is chased out. When taxation takes away 30% of our money, we have less ability to give to charity. And many will say – as does Ebenezer Scrooge – why should I give charitably at all, my tax dollars already are sent to support need. But that’s just the thing – the tax dollars that SHOULD support need, rarely do. As the famed economist Milton Friedman points out, when you spent you own money you are much more careful with how it is spent, but when you spend other people’s money (as in the case of the government) you are far less careful with how it is spent. And so Communist produces a lot of waste.
The earliest Christians in the book of Acts are not operating out of a forced top-down Communist, but from a heart-and-soul-up spirit of generosity and care for other believers.
And here we see that money is not itself evil (though the love of money is the root of all sorts of evils), but rather good stewardship of our money is vital. It is because of the good stewardship of some that the needs of others are met.
The example is given:
36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
This is a favorable example before the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira is told. And it is favorable because Joseph (aka Barnabas) was generous and honest in his dealing. But yet we should note that it says that he sold a field, not that he sold all of his possessions.
And we are to be encouraged, whether rich in the world or not, we are encouraged to work hard and give … of our own efforts and monies.
[Eph 4:28 ESV] 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
We are to work not only for ourselves and to support our family, but we are to work extra so that we may have something to share with those in need.
So we have had the positive example of Barnabas, then there is the error of Ananias and Sapphira.
III. The Error of Ananias and Sapphira
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.
Here, it is important to be clear, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not that they didn’t give everything to the church, but that they pretended that they had given it all to the church. They wanted to the credit, while keeping some of the money too.
So the their sin was the same as the that of the Communists – wanting control over money and possessions that are properly owned by someone else.
Knowing that their sin was that of lying, or bearing false witness, we should understand that God is not going to strike us dead if we don’t give all our money to the church. That is not what this is teaching. God does not want you to give every penny to the church and then fall into need yourself!
Ananias and Sapphira and punished, killed even, not for lack of generosity, but for lying to the Holy Spirit, God himself.
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 man but to God.”
The Holy Spirit is God. When they lied to the Holy Spirit they lied to God.
And we must understand that God has every right to end a life, just as he created it. In Korah’s Rebellion against Moses, God sent fire from heaven and consumed them. Korah’s allies Dathan and Abiram were killed when God opened the earth beneath them and it swalllowed them up. God killed Nadab and Abihu when they offered unauthorized fire in worship. And now, God killed Ananias and Sapphire. And he has every right to do this. He is just. If we are honest, all deaths come about on the Lord’s timing and by his will. It is just these special occurrence that are without mediate causes in the world; they were not killed by the sword of another man or of an internal disease, but killed directly by God.
Let us conclude then with this. The fellowship of the Christians, united in one heart and soul, was rocked by the lying of Ananias and Sapphira. Great fear came upon the whole church. Lying ruins fellowship.
The witness at the stand in the courtroom, if he is found to have lied once you have to throw out all of his testimony. So we see the important of telling the truth. We see the importance of the commandment “thou shalt not bear false witness.”
It is for the good of our fellowship as Christians that we tell not lies and grieve not one another, but remain true to our word, and remain true to the Word of God. Let us be charitable in giving, and let us be charitable in listening, and we pray let us of have a wonderful fellowship of one heart and one soul. For this I pray, in Jesus name, Amen.