Just as Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) in His public ministry, so God wants His children to have compassion and be tenderhearted, too (1 Peter 3:8). Seeing the benevolent action of the Godhead, it comes as no surprise that the early church showed a genuine concern for the material and physical needs of others. What do we see recorded in the book of Acts about the benevolent acts of the first-century saints?
After about 3000 souls obeyed the gospel on the Day of Pentecost, the new converts continued steadfastly in spiritual activities. At the same time, they practiced benevolence. The first case of such is noted in Acts 2:44,45: “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.”
No, that arrangement was not the equivalent of modern-day communism. What occurred then was voluntary (not forced on the disciples against their desires), local (there is no record of it taking place outside of Jerusalem), and temporary in nature. What the believers did was see to it that the other members of the church had their needs met. Look again at Acts 2:45. Those who received assistance were those who “had need.” In the New Testament, we see financial/material assistance distributed “to the needs” of people (Romans 12:13), not offered to those who could “pay their own way.”
A second, similar case of benevolence is found in Acts 4, where the following is written about “the multitude of those who believed”:
Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas . . . having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:34-37)
There was a “spirit” demonstrated by the early followers of the Christ – the spirit of generously assisting those who had material needs. For the first time in God’s record of the church’s history, one individual who willingly helped others was mentioned by name – Joses, known as Barnabas.
Probably one of the more well-known cases of the early church making certain that its members’ material needs were met is the instance recorded in Acts 6. It is there that we read that some widows “were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1). Note that there was already a daily distribution being carried out. Seven faithful disciples were chosen to “serve tables,” that is, make certain that the widows in question had their material needs met (6:2-6). God cares about widows, and He wants His church to be prepared to help “those who are really widows” (1 Timothy 5:16).
A fourth example of benevolence in the book of Acts is found in chapter eleven. When the prophet Agabus prophesied of a coming great famine, “Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (11:29,30). In this instance, the senders of the aid were the disciples in Antioch of Syria. Each of the saints there decided to help according to his/her ability. Not only did they make a decision to help; they actually did it. Sometimes we affirm that we will help in a particular cause, then we drag our feet, or worse yet, we never carry through on our pledge to help.
When the apostle Paul spoke with pastors from the church in Ephesus, he appealed to them to “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). When God’s children have a heart that is ready to give unconditionally, not expecting anything in return and not wanting any special praise or recognition, they can be great servants.
As we think about the benevolent spirit which we see revealed in the book of Acts, let us be ready to imitate the early disciples and step up to use our material blessings to help our fellow man. Instead of waiting on others to come and “beg” for our help, let us take the initiative and be on the lookout for opportunities to assist widows, orphans, and others who lack life’s material necessities (James 1:27).
Here are some sobering thoughts: “Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13). Again, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
May we all learn to take to heart and apply the message of Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Let us not fantasize about what we would do if we had “a lot more”; instead, let us use well what we already have!
— Roger D. Campbell