Great Themes From Acts: Benevolence

Tom M. Roberts
Fort Worth, Texas

Beggars are an uncommon sight in America. Though it is true that we have problems with the homeless, unemployed and poor in our nation, there are the safety nets of food stamps, shelters, welfare support and multitudes of charitable and religious organizations that operate twenty-four hours a day and three hundred sixty-five days of the year. Many countries of the world today have a different attitude and less concern for the poor, permitting beggars to roam the streets and scavenge a living as best they can. Some religions, such as Hinduism, even incorporate "karma" into their justification for a lack of charity, advocating that one's position in life is the just payment for evil deeds in a past life. Thus, one who is poor and needy is getting "justice" for past sins and society should not interfere. These poor are simply ignored and left to their destiny. I suppose it is better to be needy in America than in a Hindu state, if one must be needy at all.

Not all beggars are welfare cheats and deadbeats. There are times when world events trigger calamities such as wars, refugees and famine. Nature on the rampage has been known to destroy homes, crops and the necessary amenities so that disease and pestilence spring up and affect millions. Dramatic social changes (revolutions, programs, etc.) often force many into destitution. Many of us have been so protected by insurance, retirement plans, savings, governmental programs such as disaster relief or by civic orders such as the Red Cross that we can scarce imagine the total devastation others have experienced. However, take away these benefits and we might learn first hand what many in the world today know about being in need. Imagine, if you can, that you have no job, no food in the house for today's meal, no bank account, no retirement funds, no government help, no welfare protection, your home is taken from you and your family has absolutely nothing between them and starvation. I know that such thinking is foreign to our affluent way of life, but try to put yourself in that desperate situation and then ask, "What do I do now?" We might learn what it means to be in need beyond our control.

We might even learn what it meant to be a Christian in the first century.

It Is Better to Give Than to Receive

Early Christians lived in a world far different from ours. Lots of people, in and out of the church, suffered on a daily basis without any "safety nets" between them and poverty. But Christians were especially susceptible to deprivation since discipleship took away any last vestiges of help due to the alienation from family and nation. One of the worst financial decisions to be made by anyone could be that of becoming a Christian. Yet it is from this crucible of suffering that Luke draws one of the greatest themes of the Book of Acts: benevolence. New Testament Christianity forever becomes our model of a people who took care of its own, who breathed life into the teaching of Jesus that "it is better to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).

There are at least three occasions when the early church had opportunity to test their resolve concerning needy brethren. On each of these events, without government assistance or without institutional oversight, faith passed the tests and forever set the standard (above and beyond contemporary social practices) with which we measure ourselves today.

Church to Needy Members

It has been conjectured that many Jews from foreign nations (Acts 2:9-11) who obeyed the gospel stayed beyond their planned expectations due to the extraordinary events on Pentecost and fell into need. Without jobs and income, their funds would have been soon exhausted. Regardless, it is true that needy saints existed in the days immediately following the establishment of the church. From the beginning, Christians helped Christians. We are told by Luke that "all that believed were together and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need" (2:44-45). Beyond individual participation, the whole church was involved, for we are told later (4:32ff) that "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common . . . for neither was there among them any that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the price of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto each, according as any one had need."

It was during these same days that some of the widows were overlooked in the "daily ministration." Grecian (or foreign born) Jewish Christians were being neglected while Hebrews (local residents) were cared for. The solution by the apostles was that servants of the church (later identified as deacons: 1 Tim. 3:8) were appointed to administer the funds of the church (corporate action, if you will). Note that it was the "business" (v. 3) of the church to administer these funds through its own workers and not the work of some institutional "widows' home." There are benefits to benevolence beyond the immediate physical relief that comes through sharing and fellowship. This cannot be experienced by proxy benevolence through institutional businesses. Luke's account clearly emphasized the "giving and receiving" aspect of benevolence.

Church to Needy Churches

Not many years later (circa 45 A.D.), there was a severe famine in Judea. We are told by Luke that it was in the days of Claudius (who reigned from 41-54 A.D.). Historians note that there were four such "dearths" throughout the world during his tenure, but that one was especially severe in Judea and it is recorded in Acts 11:27-30. In this instance, we are told that benevolence not only "begins at home" (as in the earlier accounts in Jerusalem) but spreads its considerations to bret ren who are strangers in other cities. Brethren at Antioch were told by prophets (including Agabus) that such a famine would occur and "the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea: which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul."

Here is God's welfare plan: brethren helping brethren. When a common faith and love is shared, hearts are touched at the plight of suffering disciples. There is no need to wait for the government to act, for institutional organizations to "grease the machinery," for inter-congregational aggregates to be formed. The church at Antioch sent the relief (whether food, money, etc.) by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (thus, congregational action). The relief was sent to the elders of the needy churches. No mention is made of "elders over all Judea," nor is it implied that the Jerusalem elders oversaw the distribution to all the churches (a diocesan concept). Harmonizing Acts 11 with all that the Bible teaches about congregational independence tells us that the elders under consideration were the elders in every needy church who received the funds from Barnabas and Saul and made distribution in each church according to their wisdom. The simplicity of Luke's account impresses us with the ability each church has to act on its own to have fellowship with needy brethren.

Churches to a Needy Church

Not to be confused with the events of Acts 11, Luke recorded the third occasion for benevolence years later in Acts 24:17 where Paul defended himself before Felix, the governor. Tertullus charged Paul with sedition by labeling him "a pestilent fellow, and a mover of insurrections among all the Jews throughout the world" (v. 5). By contrast, and to show the innocency of his mission, Paul replied that he had come "to bring alms to my nation" (v. 17).

This passing reference by Paul is all that is stated by Luke regarding the events also recorded in 1 Corinthians 16, 2 Corinthians 8-9, Romans 15:25-28. However, it was a major undertaking, involving churches in Achaia, Galatia and Macedonia. The "nation" for whom the benevolent relief was intended is identified as "saints" in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1). We are not told how much money was contributed, but care was exercised to respect congregational autonomy in the selection of the messengers (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:23). Again, it is impressive that the church, without denominational hierarchy or intercongregational supervision could act in such a way to fulfill the need of the hour, doing so from an altruistic, selfless motive because their hearts were touched by the plight of suffering brethren.

One additional consideration that needs to be underscored is the fact that this benevolence went from (for the most part) Gentile churches to a Jewish church. An earlier article in this series emphasized the integration of Gentiles into a previously Jewish church. A great controversy ensued because Judaizing teachers did not want Gentiles to be allowed membership. Now, after this has been settled, we see how deeply ingrained brotherhood had become when Gentiles returned carnal things for the spiritual truth they had received. As Paul stated it: "For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, they owe it to them also to minister unto them in carnal things" (Rom. 15:27). This added dimension of benevolence shows that true love and concern cross the borders of race and nationality when we give ourselves to the Lord. Disciples in Macedonia in "deep poverty" (2 Cor. 8:2) gave even "beyond their power" and were noted for the "riches of their liberality." Such is the power that constrains Christians when fellow Christians are in need.

Modern events have proven that the benevolent spirit still exists among brethren around the world. American brethren have helped other Christians from the Philippines to Mexico, from Europe to Africa. Reading the Acts gives us renewed incentives to be tenderhearted in our generation. As we abound in "faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and all earnestness. . . let us abound in this grace also" (2 Cor. 8:7).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 14, pp. 428-429
July 16, 1992