The Generous Early Church

Throughout the stories of the early church in Acts, we see examples of generosity over and over again. We see that “they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:45) and that they “received their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). One Christian couple even sold their property and originally planned on giving all the money away to the church before they changed their minds and had things go very sour for them (5:1-11)—but their original intent was good. When a group complained that their food needs were being neglected, the leaders of the church created a task force to take care of them (6:1-7).

And then there’s Cornelius who wasn’t a Christian or a Jew, but was devout, feared God, prayed continually and was known for his generous giving to the poor (10:2). Seeing as how Cornelius was one of the first examples in Acts that God was going to start saving the Gentiles, his way of life should get our attention; for the qualities that we find in him were qualities that made God take note of him.

With the new realization that Gentiles, like Cornelius, would be entering into Christianity, the early Christians had to become generous enough to partner with the Holy Spirit and give their faith away to outsiders. Since most of us are not Jewish, but Gentile, this seems like a petty detail to us, but it wasn’t at the time. This progressive revelation was new stuff and confusing to hear. It was a hot topic in the early church. We know this because Paul had to spend a lot of air time in his letter to the Romans in attempts to explain how the Gentiles were now theologically a part of the faith. Clearly there was enough of a fuss about the Gentiles for him to have to engage in the conversation as much as he did.

The Jewish Christians had to have been nervous. These Gentiles could really mess everything up. They could create cults and false doctrines and blended religions that massively miss the point. Giving their new movement of Christianity (that they themselves were still kind of figuring out) to outsiders could be dangerous. It was clear that God wanted them to do it, but what were the rules? This was uncharted territory. The Old Testament was clear that God always welcomed the outsider, but those circumstances came with terms and conditions and it wasn’t as easy as just accepting salvation by faith.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council was called and all the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. Peter, Barnabas and Paul told their stories of how the Holy Spirit was baptizing the Gentiles during their mission trips. The council looked at the words of the prophets to try to understand what God was doing and they talked about some key issues that were being debated at the time: if the Gentiles got saved, would they have to be circumcised as the Jews had always been? Further more, out of the 600+ laws of the Old Testament, which ones should be communicated for them to follow given their specific culture?

After debating all of this for some time they came to a conclusion and wrote a letter to the Gentiles located in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. I thought about how I would write that letter based off of the council’s key decisions and came up with this:

Dear brothers and sisters in the faith. It has been made clear to us that God has invited you into his church! We rejoice with you and in what God is doing, but we’d like to write you on a few key issues—one of these issues being circumcision. You’ve heard a few people tell you that should be circumcised to become one of us. We’ve talked about this and have decided that this is not necessary. However, we do expect you to live up to some expectations. Our societies differ greatly and you are going to have to change a few things if you’re really serious about Christianity. Our savior expects us to live holy. Therefore, here are a few things you need to start abstaining from: don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, do not commit sexual immorality, and abstain from blood in your food and strangled meat. We’re keeping an eye on you in all of this and will be in touch.

That’s what I would have written. Ready to hear what the council’s letter actually said?

The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:23-29)

Interesting, isn’t it? Despite all of the chaos these Gentiles could cause in the church in its infancy, the early Christians simply send some trusted men to essentially say, “Keep yourselves from these particular sins and you’ll be good! Talk to you later!”

That right there is generosity. They followed the Lord and generously gave their faith away to those whom it would have been easier to keep at a distance. They welcomed the mess that was bound to come with it and stepped into new territory.

But the early church’s generosity didn’t stop there. When the Holy Spirit told the prophet Agabus that a great worldwide famine was coming, the disciples sent relief to the brothers living in Judea (11:29). You also see generosity in Lydia’s life, a convert who invited the disciples to stay at her house (16:15) and possibly even hosted the church in her area at her house (16:40).

There’s even generosity given towards Paul and Silas’ jailer. After God shook the jail they were staying in with an earthquake, the jailer supposed all of the prisoners had escaped and decided to kill himself with his own sword. But Paul stopped him right before he did and said, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (16:28). After saving their captor’s life, they then went on to share Jesus with him. This jailer, along with his entire household, accepted Jesus and got baptized. He then brought his prisoners to his house and fed them. And then, hilariously, it seems the three of them all went back to jail where Paul and Silas waited for the local authorities to release them.

This is an excerpt of my book, A Taste of Jesus.

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