Here’s another sneak peek at my new book, Giving Up: How Giving to God Renews Hearts, Changes Minds, and Empowers Ministry, available now. This excerpt is from the second chapter, titled “The Hidden Virtue of the Early Church.” I want to give the church corrective lenses to see that the ministry of Jesus, Paul, and the very first Christians was inextricably tied to generosity. It’s what made disciples and made Christianity famous in the midst of a skeptical, even hostile empire.
There is one other instance of Paul directly referring to Jesus’ words. It occurs in Acts 20, during Paul’s tearful farewell address to the Ephesian elders as he nears the end of his ministry:
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sancti ed. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (vv. 32–35, ESV).
Do you know what is perhaps the most interesting thing about the words of Jesus as Paul quoted them here? They do not appear in any of the gospels! Of course, there was a rich tradition of “sayings of Jesus” that circulated actively among the earliest Christians, though they were never written down. Today, we might think of them as “memes.” Imagine that! There was a meme in the early church from the sayings of Jesus that was so pervasive and so omnipresent in the culture of the New Testament church that Paul knew it himself, remembered it, quoted it, and admonished the believers in Ephesus to remember it as well.
When I considered the moments in which Paul quotes Jesus, I came to this compelling conclusion: there were many virtues and values in the early church that set it apart from the Roman Empire. But the single most pervasive attitude that was shared, accepted, taught, practiced, and encouraged might have been the one that is kept out of sight today: generosity. This quality appears to have been everywhere in the early church. It was like an atmospheric condition of the first Christians. It pervaded everything they did.
The Focus of the Church
We can say this much about the early Christians: their church grew beyond the imagination of most church leaders today. But it wasn’t because of some coordinated marketing plan they developed. It seems to me that they weren’t primarily motivated by a desire to garner numbers, attention, or followers—or even, as we might say today, “likes.” But what we do know is that they were radically sure of their identity as followers of Christ; taking their cue from what they saw him doing, they did likewise.
It wasn’t their strategy to stand out, yet I believe it was the radical way they cared for one another, even to the point of giving away their own possessions, that made these new believers different from the society that surrounded them. Instead of nding their security in the usual sources—money, influence, or power—they placed their ultimate hope in the promises of the risen Christ, only visible through the eyes of faith. Their reliance on the One who taught and displayed sacrificial love made them different, placing the rest of society on notice that this was a group of people who did not operate according to the usual assumptions. By imitating their Lord in loving each other unconditionally and sacrificially, those first Jesus followers zagged . . . and the world has never been the same.
The life of Jesus, the ministry of Paul, the work of the church in Acts—all of this attracted attention in ancient society. Why? Because it was obvious that such behavior did not proceed from any ordinary, human source. No philosophy, no other form of religious belief, had ever produced a movement that, despite its apparent lack of any political, military, or social base, could endure and even flourish in the face of organized opposition from those in power. The followers of Jesus were willing to give and then to keep on giving. And the world responded to the magnetic pull of their unselfish authenticity. As God described in Isaiah 58:8, they shone like a brilliant searchlight in a dark, selfish world.