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Part 1: The Joy of Generosity
November 2, 2022
Although it can be an uncomfortable topic to address and an easy one to ignore, learning the joy of generosity is key to our growth as Christians. In this first part of a three-part video series, Senior Pastor Jason Harris discusses how the early Christians shared their money and possessions voluntarily, responsively, and sacrificially and what that means for us today.
Christianity does not merely encourage generosity in general, but financial giving in particular. Almost everyone knows at least a little something about that. But that is where the familiarity ends. The truth is that even those who would consider themselves active, committed Christians are a little hazy on what exactly Christianity teaches about giving, why it matters, and how we should practice it.
This is often a source of skepticism because we have all heard stories of how church leaders have abused their position by embezzling funds or mismanaging money. They have twisted people’s arms in order to manipulate them to give to the church or some other cause, but it was all just a ploy to line their own pockets. We shouldn’t be surprised if some people cringe when it comes time in the worship service to “pass the plate.”
Personally, that’s why I was hesitant to say anything too pointed about money in the earlier years of my ministry. I didn’t want to be associated with the sleaze. Let people figure it out on their own! But I’ve since come to see that learning the joy of generosity is key to our growth as Christians. Refusing to speak about it, robs people of the opportunity to excel in the grace of God.
At this point, you might be tempted to tune out, which just goes to show how much we are willing to talk about other subjects, but we don’t want anyone telling us what to do with our money. But you should keep listening because this may be the vital next step in your spiritual development.
Jesus famously said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If I wanted to figure out what you truly value in life, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what you say. After all, talk is cheap. I would focus on what you do. Even better, I could ask you to share your calendar with me and let me see where you invest your time. That would tell me a lot about your priorities. Still more, if I really wanted to know what is most important to you, I could ask you to share your bank statements with me and let me see how you spend and save your money. Anyone willing to do that? That wouldn’t tell me everything, but it would certainly tell me a great deal about what really matters to you, despite what you might say. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When we turn to Jesus in faith, we undergo a conversion of our head, our heart, and our will. The last thing that is often converted is our wallet.
So what does Christianity have to say about giving? Here’s the basic teaching. We should give at least 10% of what we receive to our local church (that’s 10% of our gross income!), and we should give above and beyond that to other projects: targeted ministries, capital campaigns, special projects, or any other worthy cause. Where do we see that?
In the Old Testament, believers were required to give a tenth (or a “tithe”) of the produce of their land and of their livestock. Those were, of course, the two primary ways people in the ancient world made a living. And according to Leviticus 27, the tithe “belongs to the Lord.” The tithe was used to support the work of the ministry carried out by the Levites who served in the tabernacle and later in the temple––and who, therefore, did not have any other means to provide for themselves (Numbers 18.21-27). Even the Levites were required to tithe what they received in order to support the work of the priests (Numbers 18.28).
In addition to providing for the priests and Levites, the tithe was used to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of their society: widows, orphans, and non-citizens who had taken up residence in the land (Deuteronomy 14.28-29).
God took the tithe extremely seriously. In Malachi 3, God accuses his people of robbing him! Why–because they were skimping on their giving. He tells them to stop stealing from him and to bring in the full tithe. Obviously, this was a big deal.
But the question arises: to what extent does the tithe carry over from the Old Testament to the New Testament. It is true that Jesus does not command tithing, but he does not abolish it either. He mentions tithing in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. More importantly, Jesus chastises the Pharisees in Matthew 23 for fastidiously tithing even the tiny little herbs in their gardens, but failing to address the weightier matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He says they should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.
So what are we to make of this? It would be convenient and easy to conclude that tithing was an Old Testament practice that is no longer required. That way we could feel good about giving away very little and spending the rest on ourselves. But when we consider the teaching of Jesus, we recognize that his tendency was to lift the bar on what was required, not to lower it. “Don’t just love your friends; love your enemies as well. Don’t commit murder; but don’t insult your brother either.”
For that reason, giving away 10% of our income should be considered the floor not the ceiling. It’s a baseline, minimum guideline for giving, not the maximum requirement. This, no doubt, will be hard for most of us to hear because, on average, Christians today only give away about 3% of their income.
But if anything the Scriptures encourage us to be even more generous than Old Testament believers. In light of all the benefits that God has showered upon us as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it seems simply incredible to me that we could interpret Christian generosity as giving less than an Old Testament believer. All the examples we see in the New Testament point in the opposite direction.
Take a look at what we learn about the first Christians in the Book of Acts. The earliest Christians gave away their resources in radical proportions to meet the needs of others in response to the grace they had received in and through Jesus.
Specifically, I would like you to consider Acts 4.32-37. Verse 32 emphasizes the point that the early Christians had everything “in common.”
The same Greek word provides the root for the English terms “communion,” “fellowship,” or “partnership.” This passage shows us that Christian community goes beyond merely sharing common interests, beliefs, and goals and involves sharing money, possessions, and material resources with one another.
What we see here is that the earliest Christians shared their money and possessions Voluntarily, Responsively, and Sacrificially.
First, the early Christians shared voluntarily. They were not guilt-tripped into giving, nor were they offered false promises that if they had enough faith and gave more that God would bless them in turn with health and wealth. Their giving was completely free and voluntary. It was not forced or compulsory.
At first glance, it might appear that the Bible is advocating some kind of primitive socialism, especially when you read in verse 37 that Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
But the New Testament model of economic sharing resists easy categorization. Unlike certain forms of socialism, the Bible never denies the right to private ownership. In fact, owning property is considered so crucial to a person’s well-being that God acts to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to acquire and preserve property of one’s own. But unlike certain forms of capitalism, the Bible never endorses a purely individualistic perspective that would allow someone to say: “It’s my money; I can do whatever I want with it.”
That becomes especially clear in this passage. Yet the question remains: If this economic sharing was voluntary, then why did they give so generously?–especially if no one was forcing them to do so?
Verse 32 provides a clue: “No one said any of the things that belonged to him was his own.”
Legally they owned everything. But they didn’t think it belonged to them. They knew that everything ultimately belongs to God.
Likewise we need to cultivate an attitude of heart and mind whereby we recognize that everything we are, and everything we have belongs to God–not to us. We are merely stewards, which of course is the image Jesus often uses to describe us in his parables. God entrusts his resources to us to manage on his behalf.
Do you see that? It’s not your money. It’s not your apartment. It’s not your stuff. So the real question is not: How much of my money will I give away? But how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?
First, the early Christian shared voluntarily. Second, they shared responsively. This economic sharing arose in response to specific needs. The expression in verse 34: “For as many as…” could also be translated, “From time to time…”
In other words, this financial giving was not carried out once–and for all time–but as the ongoing situation demanded. And the funds were not distributed in a haphazard manner, but rather according to one’s need. In fact, the identical phrase in verse 35, “as any had need,” is also found in Acts 2.45.
Based on negative experiences in the past, we might be rightfully suspicious of how those funds were used, but Luke, the author of Acts, makes clear that the proceeds were not pocketed by the Apostles, nor were they equally distributed to the entire community, nor indiscriminately handed out. Rather these early Christians were wise and discerning. They took the time to evaluate and assess various needs and to differentiate the genuine from the false.
What was the end result? The early Christians addressed legitimate needs so thoroughly that Luke could make the bold claim in verse 34 that “there was not a needy person among them.”
That brings me to my third and final point, which is that the earliest Christians gave not only voluntarily and responsively, but sacrificially. These New Testament believers shared their wealth in radical proportions. This was not a perfunctory act or an empty gesture on their part. This kind of giving required real sacrifice.
We have already seen how Barnabas sold a field and gave the money to the Apostles to distribute. And this was not an unusual, one-off event. This was a regular practice within the fledgling church. Acts 2.44-45 tells us: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Acts 4.34-35 reiterates the point: “As many as were 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.”
They sold their possessions and their goods, their real estate and their valuables. The fact that they still owned their property is what made their economic sharing so sacrificial.
Think of your own giving. You might be willing to give away a certain percentage of your current income to support the ministry of the church and the needs of others. But these Christians were willing not only to dig into their jeans, but to dig into their savings. In the Ancient Near East, wealth was tied to land and property. So this was the equivalent of selling an investment. Whenever a need arose, these Christians were willing, in effect, to sell stock or to liquidate a real estate holding in order to address it.
I don’t know too many people who would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice, but we all should. This is the kind of radical generosity that Jesus instills within his followers. Our giving simply reflects his own radical generosity towards us.
Jesus gave his life for you voluntarily. No one forced his hand. He said: No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.
Jesus gave responsively. He addressed the most profound need you face, which is your alienation from him.
And Jesus gave sacrificially. He held nothing back. He gave himself up for you as a sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5.2).
The more you see how Jesus gave of himself voluntarily, responsively, and sacrificially for your sake, the more willing you will be to give of yourself for his sake.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker