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Acts 4:32-5:16 by Robert Dean
In our study of Acts, we are currently looking at what the Bible says about managing our resources. We are reminded that although God allows for flexibility within different cultures, His absolute social structures are universal and embedded in all of creation. Part of our personal responsibility is providing for others. In this lesson, we learn more of the righteous and gracious provisions for the poor.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:59 mins 44 secs

The Righteous and Gracious Provision for the Poor. Acts 4:32-5:16

 

There are some key principles that are laid down in Scripture. In Genesis there is the foundation of everything. And then as we get into Exodus and God gives a legal constitution to the Jewish people, the Israelites: there will be the legal document that is the basis for their political society when they come into the land. We come to understand that there are certain patterns that are embedded within God's creation. This is not to say that we should apply the Mosaic Law per se to the present environment, that is not the principle. The point is that there are certain principles, certain patterns that were there before the Law that were given specific application of these principles within the Law that sets up a sort of pattern or a model. It is not that any other nation should take those laws directly and specifically because the constitution that God set up for Israel was because they were a unique people who were called out by God through who all the nations of the world would be blessed. But by studying the laws within the Mosaic covenant we can come to understand certain principles and pattern that should be present within any sound economic system.

We describe this is terms of fence posts and that the fence posts define the boundaries. As long as an economic system fits within those fence posts we are in bounds and as a result of obedience to these establishment or universal laws there will be prosperity. Whether you are a believer or unbeliever it doesn't matter because these laws were given to a nation comprised of believers and unbelievers and they reflect eternal laws that God embedded within the structure of His creation.

So the first was personal responsibility and accountability. That personal responsibility included work, service to God; not work in the sense of labor but responsibilities that were to be accomplished by Adam and Eve in the garden. This included the right of the creature to enjoy the rewards of his own personal labor. Then we have studied the imputation of value: that things have a value that is imputed or assigned to them that only God and that which is directly related to His character has implicit value. That is because He is the only one who is eternal. Everything else is created, it is finite, and therefore it has finite value and imputed value. We have seen that there is a recognition of private property under the sovereignty of God, that God is the one who owns all things and that man's position as an image bearer of God is a steward or responsible manager of property. But ultimately the property is God's. It is not the state's—no nation is the ultimate owner of real estate—it is to be utilized by each individual owner and that private property is to be recognized. This is seen in many passages, the clearest of which is in the prohibition of theft; it recognizes individual ownership.

Then there is the validity of wealth accumulation. The Bible never criticizes people for being wealthy simply because they are wealthy. In fact the Bible supports and encourages the accumulation of wealth and passing down wealth from generation to generation. In Proverbs we read that it is the wise father who preserves an inheritance to pass down to his children and his children's children. God is not against the accumulation of wealth. He is against the accumulation of wealth for wealth's sake and for thinking that wealth is designed to bring happiness; it does not. But there are things that are accomplished by those who have money that cannot be accomplished by those who do not have money. The Bible emphasizes compassion and grace generosity from individuals to provide for those who for whatever reason are impoverished or cannot take care of themselves. The principle is laid down in Leviticus 19:18. Jesus defines the "neighbor" as anyone who comes into out periphery. So this becomes the foundational principle for dealing with those who are less fortunate: widows, orphans, the poor.

A principle that is an application of that which runs throughout all of the Law is the principle of grace orientation. It is mercy, undeserved kindness to those who don't necessarily deserve it. Leviticus 25:35 NASB "Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you." The "you" there is in the singular, not in the plural. It is not talking to Israel as a corporate group; it is addressing them as individuals. Deuteronomy 15:7 NASB "If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; [8] but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need {in} whatever he lacks."

Deuteronomy 15 is dealing with the cancellation of a debt during the sabbatical year. Israel's calendar was set up so that every six days they work and on the seventh day they did not. Why? Because the pattern was set by God: in six days God made the heavens, the seas and all that is in them, and on the seventh day He rested. If those days in Genesis chapter one were not literal 24-hour days then some shift student of the Word could come along and say: Well if those days in Genesis one were million-year geological ages then that would mean that we work for 6-million years and then take a million years off! That doesn't make any sense. The whole sabbatical principle goes out the door if you change the length of days in Genesis chapter one. The resting of the seventh day was to show that they were resting in God's provision and that God would supply, God would take care of things. Then that was extended to the sabbatical year, so that they would work six years and then rest the seventh year. During the sabbatical year they would not put the land into production; it would lie fallow for the year so that it could be restored to its natural vitality and be productive for the next seven years. Then every seventh cycle (49th year) there would be a sabbatical year, and then the fiftieth year was a jubilee year. It, too, was a sabbatical year. At that time, every fifty years, they would have a double sabbatical year—49th and 50th year—and then they would start over again.

This was important because God was also teaching them principles of finance that were different. Remember we saw that when we look at the biblical pattern of economics in the Mosaic Law it is not something that should necessarily be applied across the board to every nation. There are unique aspects of this that are related to God's purpose for the nation Israel, and this is one of them. But it shows how economics is to be ultimately grounded in a trust in God.

Deuteronomy 15:1 NASB "At the end of {every} seven years you shall grant a remission {of debts.}" There are a couple of different interpretations that have been suggested for this. One which is unlikely is that the debt wasn't completely erased or cancelled, it was just that you didn't ask for payment during the seventh year because if nobody was working they couldn't produce anything to pay off the debt, so they just put it on hold for the seventh year and then continue to repay the loan the next year. But that doesn't really fit the context. What does fit the context is that the debt was completely eradicated.

Deuteronomy 15:2 NASB "This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD'S remission has been proclaimed." This is the form of the release.

Deuteronomy 15:3 NASB "From a foreigner you may exact {it,} but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother." In other words, you don't cancel the debt for the non-Israelite. But they were to give up their claim to what was owed by their brother. That is where it is clear that this is a complete cancellation of the debt—except when there may be "no poor among you [v. 4]." When would that be? That would only come, according to the Law, when the nation was obedient to God and being blessed, and then there would be abundance for everyone. But in years when they were spiritually disobedient then part of the judgment would be that there was an increase in poverty. So the only except to this would be when there were no poor among them—"since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, [5] if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today. [6] "For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you. [7] "If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; [8] but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need {in} whatever he lacks."

But what if it is the sixth year? Deuteronomy 15:9 NASB "Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, 'The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,' and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you. [10] You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings." The principle here is that there is something that goes beyond the quantifiable empirical data of raw economic theory, and that is that there is a spiritual component to economics which God has built into the system. So what He is teaching here is that the principle is that we are to be generous because our trust is not in what we have, it is in the Lord. If our trust is in the Lord and we freely give to our brother who is in need we are trusting in the Lord because we know He will supply our need.   

That is important to understand because that is the idea that buttresses what is going on in Acts chapter five, which is where we are studying. When Barnabas and others are selling their land they are willingly selling it, giving it to the church so that that money would be distributed from the church leaders to those who were poor and in need. They are trusting as they are functioning in the spiritual gift of giving that God is the one who is going to openly supply their need. So they are not grasping on to what they have to keep it for themselves, they are willingly and generously giving to sustain others in the body of Christ.  

Deuteronomy 15:11 NASB "For the poor will never cease {to be} in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'"

The principle that governs how we give and how we help those who are less fortunate is to be grace, compassion, and generosity. In the discourse in Deuteronomy 15 there is a concluding statement that is going to be quoted by Jesus. When Jesus said "the poor you have with you always" He didn't stop there, there is a context. (If you take the text out of the context you are left with a con-job—always remember that) So what we have to do is understand the original context here in Deuteronomy before we go to the passage in Mark. This concluding statement in Deuteronomy 15:11 has two clauses in it that must be understood separately. One clause is a description, the other is a prescription. The first part of this verse is not a prescription. People have used it that way—we'll always have the poor with us so let's just move on down the road. No, this isn't a prescription. He is not saying you should always have the poor with you. It is not a prescription; it is just a description, the reality. There will always be poor; there will always be wealthy. That is just the way it is. But what are we to do about it given that scenario. That is the second part of the statement: "You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land." This is the second time in four verses that this has been stated. This is grace—grace giving; and that is operating on the principle of loving your neighbor as yourself.

So in Deuteronomy 15:11 we see that the Bible recognizes that poverty is a universal reality. Throughout all time and throughout all cultures there are those who are poor. A corollary to that is that you can't end that problem. No matter what we do there will always be the poor with us. Does that mean we shouldn't do anything? No. Is this a government operation? No, it is not. It is a responsibility of each individual and when the government steps in and makes it a public policy rather than a policy of the private sector it creates more problems. Because whenever there is an official government involvement in something it creates layers of bureaucracy, and payers of bureaucracy happen to be more prolific than rabbits. Bureaucrats beget bureaucrats, and the more bureaucrats we beget the more of a bureaucracy there is and the more difficult it is to get anything done. The poor are always with us and that means we always have the responsibility to take care of those in need, especially when we get into the New Testament with regard to those who are in the family of God, those who are other believers. Historically this is why orphanages, hospitals, places to take care of the poor were set up originated from within Christianity. It comes out of a Judeo-Christian background.

Mark 14:3 NASB "While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining {at the table,} there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; {and} she broke the vial and poured it over His head." This was worth to the average person in Jerusalem at least a year's income, maybe more. [4] "But some were indignantly {remarking} to one another, 'Why has this perfume been wasted? [5] For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and {the money} given to the poor.' And they were scolding her." We could have used this some other way. This was the self-righteous crowd. There are conservatives who are self-righteous and there are liberals who are self-righteous—we want to determine how every dime is spent. That is the mentality; no sense of grace, no sense of letting other people make their decisions, they want to make everybody's decision for them. [6] "But Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. [7] For you always have the poor with you …'" That is the context. In their self-righteous rationalization they wanted to sell it, get the money, and in their self-righteous we-are-better-than-anybody-else mentality they said: We'll give it to the poor.

It is amazing how many people, especially politicians, who always want to trot out the poor as justification for taking money from hard-working citizens. When Jesus said, "For you always have the poor with you," that is not His teaching point. In other words, He is not teaching about poverty here. He is teaching about generosity here and He is challenging the pseudo-compassionate mentality of the self-righteous crowd. "… and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me." So this was an honorable thing to do. She has done what she could and she has come to anoint my body.

We have to understand the context of both of these passages: that it is not a prescription for closing off our compassion—there will always be the poor so let's move on down the road. In both places it is a realization and recognition of a genuine need and the responsibility of individuals, not governments, to meet that need.

The next aspect we should focus on when it comes to dealing with the poor is that it should be handled by genuine, equitable justice—righteousness. Leviticus 19:15 sets the standard NASB "You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly." Remember, 19:18 says "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." This is only four verses prior to that, it connects righteousness with love. Real love is perfectly equitable and righteous. The economic status should not be a factor. If they are rich or poor they are treated with the same way in the Law.

Proverbs 29:14 NASB "If a king judges the poor with truth, His throne will be established forever." This is a more practical application because it is in the Proverbs. Verse 13, "The poor man and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives light to the eyes of both." The thing they have in common is common grace. Because God gives light to the yes of both there is equal responsibility toward God from both. That is the point. Verse 12, "If a ruler pays attention to falsehood, All his ministers {become} wicked." Here is a king who is building policy on that which is false, that which is not aligned with reality. Let's paraphrase that verse and modernise it: "If a ruler pays attention to Marxism, then all his servants become wicked; if a ruler pays attention to socialism, then all of his servants become wicked." The application is obvious. The government puts itself in the business of legalized theft in order to redistribute wealth on the basis of what the government's concept of what is equitable, not on the basis of fairness. And in doing that it violates the principle of treating the rich and the poor impartially.

So verse 14 refers the king who judges the poor with truth, in contrast to the ruler who pays attention to lies. This indicates that there is an absolute truth and everything else is a lie. The wise king is the king who listens to the truth. In the context of Proverbs and the wisdom literature in the Old Testament the truth is the Torah, the Word of God.

The next issue is dealing with usury. Definition of usury from the Oxford English Dictionary: "The practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest." That is not what the original means. The only way we get to the meaning of the original is to look at the context because the idea is not necessarily inherent within the word. This is one of those ideas that has been massively misunderstood and has been the cause of much social turmoil and anti-Semitism throughout the history of Christianity. Even many Jewish interpreters have not accurately understood this. That is one approach, that usury is unreasonably high interest.

In the middle ages the Christian church prohibited usury. For them it was any charging of interest. It wasn't until they got further into the middle ages that they began to understand that there was a basis for lending money and recouping a certain amount of return from the money that was loaned.

The general principle is love your neighbour as yourself, even if your neighbour is your servant, your worker or your hired hand. If you followed this principle as management you would never have labor unions because you are going to treat your employee just exactly how you would want to be treated—with generosity. Deuteronomy 24:14 NASB "You shall not oppress a hired servant {who is} poor and needy, whether {he is} one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns." This was the general precept.

Exodus 22:25 NASB "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest." Who is this talking about? Is it talking about the contractor down the street so that he can build houses and sell them to make money, and from his profit repay the loan and make a living? No, this is lending money to the person who is impoverished and who has no resources. So this is prohibiting charging interest to the impoverished person. Don't take advantage of the poor.

Leviticus 25:35 NASB "Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. [36] Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. [37] You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain." This is not talking about investing capital here; it is talking about loaning money to poor people who have no means. Then God enforces it: [38] "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan {and} to be your God."

Proverbs 28:8 NASB "He who increases his wealth by interest and usury Gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor." What is the context again? It has something to do with the poor.

Ezekiel 18:17 NASB "he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, {but} executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes …"

The issue with usury wasn't putting one's money to work, to make money, charging interest. It had nothing to do with that, it had to do with providing money to the poor and charging them interest when they had no resources. That wasn't loving your neighbour as yourself. So we see that due to a failure to pay attention to context the text was taken out of the context and western civilization got conned for thousands of years by these usury laws that completely distorted the meaning of Scripture.