Any study of the history of the early church reveals the culture of generosity developed in the lives of those new Christians. In the first church in Jerusalem, Luke records, “they sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45). Again in Acts 4, Luke points out the generous spirit of these believers as they sold houses or land and donated the proceeds from the sales to the church (Acts 4:33-35). Barnabas appears in the New Testament as one of the benefactors of the church in Jerusalem as he sold a field and gave the money to the apostles to distribute to the needy (Acts 4:36-37).
In fact, one of the strangest and most challenging stories from the early church is connected to the practice of donating money from the sale of property. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and evidently wanted to be seen as truly generous people by donating the money to the church. However, they chose to secretly keep some of the money instead and yet appear to donate the entire amount. This deceptive act of giving left both of them dead and judged by the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).
This church continued to grow and prosper in Jerusalem. However, years later, the church found itself in financial need. God spoke through the prophet Agabus to the church at Antioch and informed it of the mother church’s need. The Christians at Antioch responded by giving as “each one was able” and the money was sent to the Jerusalem church by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30). It just may be possible that Barnabas, who had taught the believers at Antioch (Acts 11:26) was the person who had led these folks to adopt a culture of generosity. Regardless, the church was generous.
This commitment to generosity transcends financial considerations. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark dedicates an entire chapter to the benevolent practices of early Christians that distinguished them from their pagan counterparts in society (“Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion”, Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997 – originally published by Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 73-94). In this chapter, Stark points out how the generosity towards the poor and infirmed by the Christian population throughout the Roman Empire is one of the principal reasons for its rapid growth.