While the sequel to Luke’s Gospel is typically titled “the Acts of the Apostles,” it’s often said the book could just as easily be named “the Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Luke mentions the Spirit more than 50 times in this book. From beginning to end, he stresses the Spirit’s power behind God’s mission (Acts 1:8; 13:9; 15:8, 28; 16:6, 7; 20:28; 28:25).
The Spirit empowered the apostles to cast out demons, heal the sick, and supernaturally escape imprisonment. But there’s another miracle the Spirit performed in the early church that he still performs in our churches today—the miracle of a radical generosity.
We all have cultural preferences that affect what we think about worship in the local church. Our expectations shape what genre of songs we think the church should sing, which sermon-delivery styles most resonate with us, and even what quirks we’ll put up with in a leader. But radical generosity releases these personal preferences and refuses to hoard privileges and power. In the book of Acts, God gives us a glimpse of this better way only God’s word and Spirit can bring about.
The Jerusalem church brought together Jesus-following Jews from multiple cultures. The “Grecian” or “Hellenistic” Jews were born far from Jerusalem and spoke Greek as their first language. The “Hebraic” Jews were raised in Aramaic-speaking families, and their culture was bound more closely to Jerusalem (6:1). These Aramaic-speaking Jews were likely both the majority in the Jerusalem church and more influential. The apostles were part of this group, after all, and this strand of Jewish culture had shaped Jesus’s earthly life.
Given the social dominance of the Hebraic Jews in Jerusalem, it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the widows among the Grecian Jews were overlooked in the church’s distribution of funds and food (v. 1). There’s no indication anyone intended to dismiss the Grecian Jews’ needs, but that didn’t mean the situation could be ignored.
What did the apostles do? They gave away power they could’ve held for themselves. They released the administration of finances and food to a group of qualified servants selected by the church (vv. 2–5). The church seems to have selected these servants from those who were in the minority. John Polhill writes, “Those chosen for the role all have Greek names. This does not prove that they were all Hellenists, . . . though, given the situation, it is likely that they were.” If this is the case, Spirit-guided apostles acted with Spirit-empowered generosity, and the people responded by empowering Spirit-filled men from the very culture that had been overlooked.
Our Lust for Control
Sadly, our churches today don’t often resemble this exemplary church. All of us, by nature, want to be in control. Augustine calls this desire our libido dominandi. Our lust for control influences both power structures and preferences in our churches.
As a result, many wrongly assume a multiethnic church is one where a multiplicity of ethnicities conform to a dominant culture. In our context, this means black and brown congregants all too often must hide and ignore their preferences and assimilate to white church culture.
Spirit-guided apostles acted with Spirit-empowered generosity, and the people responded by empowering Spirit-filled men from the very culture that had been overlooked.
But gospel-driven generosity shows us a better way. We can’t produce godly generosity in our own power. It’s empowered by the Holy Spirit, and it’s motivated by God’s free and generous gift to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gift is so great that, as my (Jamaal’s) grandmother used to say, “You can’t out-give God.”
Giving Up a Wealth of Privilege
Paul recognized the immensity of God’s gift when he wrote to the Corinthians about giving. Despite severe trials and extreme poverty, the churches of Macedonia had joyfully given to the Christians in Jerusalem. Yet Paul made it clear the Macedonian Christians didn’t forge their own path of generosity. They were following the example of Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote. “Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Go back and reread those words, slowly. What were the riches Jesus gave up? It wasn’t a wealth of money Jesus released in his incarnation. Jesus didn’t give up denarii or drachmae, dollars or cents. What he gave up was a wealth of privilege. Jesus never ceased to possess every power of the Godhead. Yet he chose to release the privilege of using these powers for his own advantage throughout his earthly life and death.
Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians was this: “With that tremendous example of generosity before you, how can you hold back?” If Jesus showed his generosity by releasing his privilege, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same for one another?
What About You?
Whether our privileges are economic, educational, cultural, or racial, shouldn’t we be willing to leverage what we possess to provide opportunities for others? That’s what the church in Jerusalem did in response to the cries of the Grecian Jews. Even then, the apostles weren’t forging their own path. They were following the example of their Savior.
Jesus didn’t give up denarii or drachmae, dollars or cents. What he gave up was a wealth of privilege.
Churches that pursue radical generosity proclaim God’s victory over every kind of sin—including racism. Such churches recognize and affirm the wonderful diversity of their members, while at the same time rejoicing in their unity in Christ.
What this pattern produces practically isn’t an assimilated culture where minorities adapt to the majority. Neither is it a pluralistic culture in which each culture or ethnicity pursues its ministries separately. The result is, instead, a community with a common Christian identity that mingles elements from a multiplicity of ethnicities, celebrating differences while joining in pursuit of God’s kingdom through the gospel. Members from every ethnicity become willing to release their preferences out of love.
Churches marked by such radical generosity baffled the world and glorified God 2,000 years ago. With the help of the Spirit, we can do the same today.
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