Community of goods and money among the first disciples -- Wholeheartedness of Barnabas, and fraud of Ananias -- Apostolic organization of charity -- Alms of Tabitha, and of Cornelius -- Peter's relation to rabbinical tithe-paying -- Grecian Jews at Antioch sending alms by Barnabas -- Tithe-paying not rescinded at first Council at Jerusalem -- First missionaries enjoined to "remember the poor" -- Paul acting as almoner.
IN previous chapters we have brought under review various laws relating to tithes and offerings as recorded in the Pentateuch; after which we looked for further light from the working of those laws in the remaining books of the Old Testament. In like manner, having studied in the Gospels the example and teaching of the Founder of Christianity in relation to tithes and religious beneficence, we have now to investigate what further instruction is given upon our subject by the remaining books of the New Testament.
Fifty days after our Lord's resurrection the Holy Spirit was sent down, and St. Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost is scarcely ended when, almost immediately, we read of the first Christians that they devoted to the calls of their new religion, not merely one or more tenths of their property, but that each gave his all; for "all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as every man had need," Acts 2:44-45.
Again, in the following chapter of the same book, we see Peter and John going up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, of whom a lame man solicited alms. Peter apparently recognized at once the propriety (not to say the duty) of helping the poor; but having neither silver nor gold, he gave such as he had, and that was, in the name of Jesus Christ, to bid the lame man walk.
A commotion ensued, which led to the imprisonment of Peter and John; but so far was this from diminishing the zeal and self-denial of the newly formed body of Christians 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 . . . Neither was there among them any that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made unto each, according as any one had need," Acts 4:32-35.
One of these more than princely givers was Barnabas, a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race, who, having a field, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet, Acts 4:36-37. This good example provoked probably the zeal of many, and perhaps the envy of some; for Ananias also, with his wife Sapphira, sold a possession, but kept back part of the price. They then laid the remainder at the apostles' feet, Acts 5:1-2, as if they were giving the whole, thus enacting one lie before uttering other two to cover the first -- with what a sad result we know. The recorded incident, however, is instructive as showing that the wholesale giving up of property by these early believers was not compulsory, this land being regarded as their own, whether in their possession or after it was turned into money.
As believers were added to the Lord, there came also "a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and them which were vexed with unclean spirits," Acts 5:14-16. Nor did the sick appeal to the apostles in vain; for they were healed every one, and in all probability they were, in many cases, also relieved by alms.
We soon learn, in fact, that there had been a church provision made for the relief of the needy, and this is suggested by the murmuring of the Gentile Christians against the Jewish Christians, because the widows of the former had been in some way neglected at the daily ministration, or distribution, of church money or similar provision.
Upon this, the apostles, calling together the mass of the disciples, pointed out that it was not reasonable that the twelve should leave preaching and ministerial work to serve "tables" -- a phrase including, no doubt, the distribution of alms; whereupon seven officers were appointed to attend to this department; the church thereby recognizing it as one of her duties to care for and distribute alms to the poor and needy, Acts 6:1-3.
Not that the officers of the church, however, were ready to receive money from all and every source; for when Simon Magus offered money to Peter and John, saying, "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands he may receive the Holy Ghost," Peter said unto him, "Thy silver perish with thee," Acts 8:18-20. Then, we are told, the Christians throughout Palestine (that is Judea, Galilee, and Samaria) had peace, being edified; and our attention is drawn specifically to the case of Tabitha, who was reported to be full of good works and almsdeeds, such as the making of coats and garments, presumably for the poor and needy, Acts 9:36-39.
On the death of Tabitha, Peter was called to Joppa, and Tabitha was raised to life again. After this we have an instance of Gentile giving; for whilst the apostle remained at Joppa, a vision was vouchsafed to a man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of the band called the Italian cohort, a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people. "Thy prayers and thine alms," said the divine messenger who appeared to him, "are gone up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and fetch . . . Peter," Acts 10:1-5.
Precisely at the same time the apostle, whilst praying on the housetop at Joppa, saw in a vision living creatures let down form heaven, and also heard a voice saying to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean," Acts 10:9-14. Nevertheless, Peter went to Caesarea, and, addressing Cornelius and his friends, said, "Ye yourselves know that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or come unto one of another nation," Acts 10:28. Notwithstanding, they invited Peter to tarry with them certain days, which he did.
For this ecclesiastical irregularity, when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians contended with him, saying, "Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them." Whereupon Peter justifies his conduct, relating his vision, in the course of which he calmly repeats to the apostles and brethren his reply to the divine message, "Not so, Lord; for nothing common or unclean hath ever entered into my mouth," Acts 11:1-8.
These words, read in the light of a previous chapter, might suggest that Peter had been all his life a strict tithe-payer, because, if he had so scrupulously observed the higher law (as the rabbis deemed it) concerning ceremonial purity, and not being the guest of, or entertaining, an outsider, it goes without saying that he would have observed what they regarded as the lower vow (that is, concerning tithes), and so have paid and expended annually for religious purposes a fourth, or thereabouts, of his income.
We are not told that the apostle Peter belonged, or had belonged, to the party of the Pharisees; but in the present instance he seems to speak like one. Not, however, that the Pharisees alone were careful to avoid ceremonial defilement. The reason why the captors of Jesus would not go into the Gentile judgment hall of Pilate was that they might not thereby be rendered unclean, John 18:28; and we read that "all the Jews, except they wash their hands up to the elbow, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders," Mark 7:3. The words, too, of Peter to Cornelius imply that it was unlawful for any Jew to be guest with an outsider.
Thus far, then, we have been dealing with Christian practice and principle in almsgiving and beneficence in Palestine, among the Jews, until Peter, preaching to Cornelius, opened the door of entry to the Christian Church to the Gentiles. We read, however, "They therefore that were scattered abroad, upon the tribulation that arose about Stephen, traveled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, but preaching Christianity to none but Jews," Acts 11:19.
Meanwhile, certain men of Cyprus and Cyrene spake to the Grecian Jews at Antioch, where Barnabas and Saul taught for a whole year. Here the disciples were first called Christians, the one practical feature of their Christianity mentioned, being that "the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren that dwelt in Judea, which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul," Acts 11:20-30.
Then, Barnabas and Saul, having accomplished this labour of love, Acts 12:25, went back to Antioch, where, not long after, certain men came down from Judea, and taught the brethren that they ought to be circumcised. A deputation, therefore, was sent to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders; and it is in connection with the conference that followed we read that some, at least, of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, especially those who had been Pharisees, (Acts 15:5) had thought it needful that the Gentile converts should be circumcised, and that they should be charged to keep (presumably in its entirety) the law of Moses, which would include, of course, spending a considerable portion of their incomes for religious purposes.
Moreover, it was not ex-Pharisees alone who were of this opinion, for, later on, we read of the Christians at Jerusalem saying to Paul, "Thou seest, brother, how many [myriads or tens of] thousands of Jews there are which believe, and they are all zealous [for the observance] of the law," Acts 21:20.
This zeal for the law no doubt included the payment of tithes, which practice was, at that very moment, in full force, presumably, by these tens of thousands of converts, and so continued for many years afterwards, as witnessed by Josephus, A.D. 67. Accordingly, neither here nor throughout the Acts of the Apostles is any exception mentioned concerning tithes and offerings, as if they were obsolete, or the law concerning them rescinded.
Passing now from St. Luke's testimony in the Acts of the Apostles, to that of other writers of the New Testament, we find the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews urging Christians "to do good and to communicate," Hebrews 13:16, these words including a duty, no doubt, as Dr. A. B. Davidson puts it, to "impart of their substance, to minister to the necessities of those in want or in affliction," (Bible Class Handbook on Hebrews 13:16). So also St. John, in his first epistle, puts before his readers this far-reaching question: "Whoso hath this world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?" I John 3:17, whilst the apostle James asks very practically, "If a brother or sister be naked, and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled: and yet ye give them not the things needful for the body; what doth it profit?" James 2:15-16.
It is in accordance, therefore, with these principles, that we see the early Christians did not stint to give for, among other things, the relief of the needy; and so, when Paul and Barnabas were sent to the heathen, the one practical injunction mentioned as laid on them was, "that we should remember the poor; which very thing," says Paul, "I was also zealous to do," Galatians 2:10.
How peculiarly zealous he was we have already seen, in his bearing the alms of the Christians from Antioch to the famishing brethren at Jerusalem, Acts 11:30. Moreover, this was not the last time of Paul's acting as almoner; for, when writing to the Romans, this great apostle says: "I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints, for it hath been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem," Romans 15:26. And again, in his speech before Felix, the apostle stated that, after some years, the cause that took him to Jerusalem was to convey to his nation alms and offerings, Acts 24:17, all which, together with what has been previously said, tends to show that the first Christians, whether converted from Judaism or heathenism, looked upon right giving, to say the least, as an important part of right living.
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