God has always intended having a people of His own in whom He can take pleasure and among whom He could dwell. Alan Stibbs has said, ‘The chief end of God in creation of man was to have a people of whom He could say, “I am theirs and they are mine.”’
Of course, God’s goal represents more than the average man’s view of church-going and attending ‘a place of worship’. It speaks of a community whose centre of gravity is in God and whose common ground above all else is that they belong to Him.
Maybe the nearest that the world has ever seen was the glorious New Testament church described in Acts 2-4 where ‘they were together’, not simply together for an hour on Sunday morning but knitted and built together, part of Jerusalem’s society but somehow apart from it. No man dared join them, be associated with them, be among them carelessly. Again, we are not referring to a Sunday service, but a recognisable company of people whose lives were extraordinarily inter-related at a profound depth, so that great grace was on them all and no one regarded any of the things that they could have rightly regarded as belonging exclusively to them as their own, but commonly available.
This extended beyond the cash in their pockets. It even included property that had become surplus to their requirements, so that Barnabas sold land that he no longer needed in order to put the proceeds in the common pot.
A generosity splurge
The birth of the church was associated with an extraordinary splurge of generosity and freedom from possessiveness; being together seemed more important. Their needs became common. If you need it and I’ve got it, I guess you should have it. Amazing!
This has not got much to do with giving 10% to a weekly offering to uphold the minister and his needs and pay for the building not to fall down. This was radical common life. They were in fellowship, which did not mean they shared a cup of coffee after the meeting for a few minutes.
Koinonia is a fascinating Greek word. Among other things, it means partnership. It’s not strictly a religious word but the church flooded it with fresh life and colour. Before they ever met Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James and John were in koinonia. They were partners in a fishing firm. They owned it together. If one was in problems with breaking nets, the others would rush to help. This was not a religious response, it was a partnership reality.
That partnership or common ownership lifestyle gripped the early believers. There were, of course, a lot of poor people among them. Devout Jewish parents probably disowned their recently converted sons and daughters. ‘You follow Jesus of Nazareth, you are no longer my child! Forget inheritance. You are out! You are on your own!’ Overnight many were disinherited.
In the joy and wonder of Pentecost the people clung together and helped one another along. They shared.
So, did nobody remain rich in the New Testament church? Was it an ascetic community made up of other-worldly, super spiritual misfits abstaining from industry, commerce, profit and loss? It seems not!
Paul gave clear instructions to young Timothy as to how he should conduct his ministry. One thing he had to do was to ‘instruct the rich’ (1 Tim. 6:17)…to leave the church? To get spiritual and poverty-stricken? Actually, no!
Timothy was to instruct the rich members of the church (GNB says ‘command them’) firstly not to be conceited. Primarily it was to do with attitude. It’s very easy for comparatively rich people to be conceited, self-sufficient and independent. They make their own plans, reach their own conclusions. They tend to stand apart from the crowd.
As James says, we tend to assume ‘today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit’ (James 4:13). I don’t suppose many in South Africa’s townships, South America’s shantytowns or India’s slums are overheard making the same claims.
They are not wondering which university they will send their children to or which country they will visit for next year’s holiday. Poor people don’t have that kind of liberty.
James says the rich are in danger of thinking that they know more than they actually do. He brings the sharp reminder, ‘You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapour that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this and that’ (James 4:13-15).
The rich must beware of false security and pride. Fixing your hope on riches is a dangerous luxury, especially when the markets collapse. Timothy is instructed to remind the rich not to fix their hopes on uncertainty. ‘It’s in the bank!’ doesn’t sound too good when the bank collapses.
Ready to share
Instead Timothy must tell them ‘to do good, be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share’ (1 Tim. 6:18). He is to remind them that this is only a ‘present’ or ‘passing’ world. There’s another one coming. They need an eternal perspective. They are also to understand a strange mystery, namely, that somehow in being ‘rich in good works and generously sharing’, they are accomplishing an extraordinary thing – they are storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future.
Now there’s a remarkable thing! Sharing with others is actually storing up for yourself! How enigmatic!
Being generous to others is actually taking hold of what is life in deed (1 Tim. 6:19). Imagine. Giving and sharing sounds like losing out and having less for yourself. Paul says it’s like storing up and planning wisely for the future.
God has this extraordinary way of turning things upside down and challenging our world view. He wants to set us free from the independence and isolation that money and possessions lure us into.
He wants us dependant on Him and His wisdom and provision. He wants us to work this out in the context of a people, His beloved church, where kindness and generosity can be expressed and unity in Him demonstrated in tangible ways.
Get ready for possessions!
One of the most dramatic ways in which God introduced this theme to His people was in the Old Testament when He was preparing them for their coming inheritance of the Promised Land. Owning land would be a new experience. Thus far as a nation they had known centuries of slavery with its inherent poverty, followed by 40 years of walking through the wilderness.
The 40-year journey was marked by the provision of daily manna, which had to be eaten on that day. No storing up allowed, except on Fridays!
Owning, possessing and storing up were unknown. Now the Promised Land awaits with its new experiences of sowing, reaping, harvest, blessing, growth, reward for industry, or alternatively loss and poverty, whether through idleness or unavoidable tragedy, death or widowhood.
As we saw at the beginning, God primarily wanted a people, not individuals bent on personal success. So He established a principle that on the seventh year all debts were to be cancelled (see Deut. 15). If on the sixth year your poor brother came to you for a loan, you were to freely give, not to ponder that on the seventh year you had to say goodbye to your loan. God wanted a generous, united people, not a divisive group of individuals fighting for their rights and developing a poor and rich divided society.
Similarly, if someone through his poverty had sold himself to you to become your slave, you had to free them on the seventh year, and ‘when you free him you don’t send him away empty-handed but furnish him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine vat’ (Deut. 15:13-14).
With these instructions came the promise of God’s blessing and prosperity. It required national faith. It required an awareness of their being a people together. It needed personal ambition and self-sufficiency to be put to death. They were going to dwell in God’s land, like another Eden. God would be among them. They were to be a people together, needs being met, with the final promise that there would be no poor among them (Deut. 15:4).
They failed the poor and the Lord
Tragically, God’s ultimate fury with Israel was not rooted in their lack of religion but their failure to care for the poor. Prophet after prophet challenged them that they had failed to remember their calling.
They had joined field to field, oppressed the poor and crushed the needy. While religiously fasting, they had failed to bring the homeless poor into their homes and failed to divide their bread with the hungry (Isa. 58:7).
God’s desire for a people sensitive to the needs of the poor and homeless was never embraced. Deuteronomy 15 was probably never worked out within Israel. In Acts 2 a spontaneous outbreak of Holy Spirit-inspired generosity which overwhelmed the young church.
Spontaneity can’t be bottled or canned. The church had to live on after the phenomenal outbreak of Holy Spirit inspiration. It continued to multiply and spread. So Paul had to tell Timothy to remind the rich of their God-given purpose and privileges.
May God help us to stay sensitive to God in His compassion to the poor, His tenderness towards their vulnerability and narrow choice range. Let’s generously remember the poor, be a people together and store up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, truly taking hold of that which is life indeed.