Barnabas or Simon the Magician?

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“And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

“And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me” (Acts 8:18-24).

Barnabas and Simon the magician had a common asset when they came to Christ: they had money. They were a step above the average believer. Not only were they better off than being destitute, they actually had sizeable resources at their disposal. We don’t know which man had a better investments portfolio. If we would need to make a conjecture as to which was wealthier, the odds favor Barnabas.

Barnabas made a decision on what to do with his possessions. He sold his land and took the cash assets and laid them at the apostles’ feet. From what we gather from his later missionary journeys and what Paul says about him in First Corinthians 9, Barnabas lived the rest of his days working for his own personal support. “Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?” (1 Cor 9:6). He apparently did not believe the best way for him to serve Christ was to live off his investments or invest his funds into ventures that would make him more money. Rather, he gave his wealth away and lived like a simple disciple. His life became a blessing to the church of inestimable value.

Simon also made a decision on what to do with his possessions. He would make them available to the disciples if they would give him spiritual advantage and an elevated status in the church. The particular status he wanted was something only given to the Apostles. We suspect if he would have tried to purchase a lesser position the answer would have been the same. This simple comparison ought to open our eyes to some understandings about contributions in the brotherhood.

We would like to highlight a few simple lessons.
As with Barnabas, it is better to give from one’s living today than to pledge percentages of investments in the future.
There is a certain appeal for people to wait to give until the money that is available today has had opportunity to generate greater amounts. The thinking is that a few dollars invested today in wise ventures would give a splendid amount down the road. This could then go much farther in doing the Lord’s work.

From a biblical perspective, several considerations are missing from this viewpoint. One is the sovereignty of God and His ability to turn all man’s plans upside down. Another is the lack of example or direct teaching for this approach. And finally, many teachings and examples are given of those who gave sacrificially of what they had at the moment. Among these is the widow who gave the “widow’s mite,” and those of Macedonia who “...in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor 8:2).

We should teach and practice the grace of sacrificial giving from what we possess.

It is contrary to the New Testament to give extra honor or attention to any person because of his wealth. “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” (Jas 2:1-4).

Simon needed to learn that the wealth he had to offer the church could not buy him any position. In fact, it seems his thought to offer wealth in exchange for position or spiritual power brought him under the condemnation of the church. The same could be said for any talent or personal gift. Any time we begin to believe some members are extremely valuable in church life and give them extra leeway, we have sacrificed the vision of New Testament church body. “Those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary” (1 Cor 12:22).

It is honorable to live and give from one’s income from daily labor, and to exist without an accumulation of assets.
There probably is a balance needed in this point. When we study the example of the early church and their community of goods, we see individuals liquidating their assets to support the poor. The church at Jerusalem later experienced persecution and famine. This called for a church wide offering of support to redeem the situation.

Studies of the subsequent evangelism and spread of Christianity do not give evidence that communal living became the economic norm. Rather, it becomes evident there was individual ownership of goods.

What we do find as the economic norm in the New Testament was for able-bodied persons to be challenged to daily toil for their income. Not only did Paul and his companions work for their living, they taught the absolute necessity for every able bodied person to do so (2Th 3). They also taught that those with income were to be generous in their support of relatives and fellow brethren who lacked material possessions (1Ti 6:17-19). It became a sign of Christian love to give fellow brothers
goods “needful to the body” (James 2:15-16) and to not shut up “bowels of compassion” (1Jo 3:17).

We also have the example of Paul to follow. Paul mentions in each of his letters to the Thessalonians that his self support efforts caused him to labor night and day, that he would not eat their bread for nought, and this was a great travail to him. We need not think that travel was less costly percentage wise on personal finances than today, and certainly must have been more demanding.

In summary: We need to continue to test our concepts and thinking by New Testament doctrines and example. One temptation we face is to move our living standard up until it consumes our income. This is not New Testament discipleship. The other temptation is to wait to give until we are wealthy, somehow believing we will feel more like giving when we have more stashed away. This also violates New Testament discipleship. What the Bible does teach is diligence, frugality, and benevolence from a heart of humility and love.

~ Myerstown, PA
October 2013