In the case of Joseph (Barnabas) we have one man whose possessions, we may suppose, were not even in Jerusalem, but who was nevertheless willing to sell them and use the proceeds in God’s service.1 If that is the case, it might explain why this man was particularly remembered. He is mentioned several dozen times in Acts. Barnabas did not have to sell what he had. It did not even make sense, humanly speaking. But he did it, reasoning, “Even though my possessions are not in Jerusalem, I want them to be used for the needy and for the expansion of the Gospel.” So he sold his field, he took the money, and laid it at the feet of the apostles.
This man was given a new name by the early Christians. He was called Barnabas, the same Barnabas who later traveled with Paul. Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement.” It may well be, though I am not sure one can prove this, that they called him “Son of Encouragement” because of the way he acted. “What an encouragement this man is!” they must have said. So they called him “Son of Encouragement,” which really means “The Encourager.”
Unfortunately, as it was soon to turn out, sitting over on the side of the church somewhere there were two people who noticed what was going on and who wanted to be acclaimed like Barnabas. Their names were Ananias and Sapphira. They thought, “I wish people were praising us like that. Look at the attention Barnabas is getting. He sold his field, gave them money. They named him ‘Son of Encouragement.’ How marvelous it would be to be thought of like that by our friends.” So they said, “We have a piece of property. Let’s sell it and do the same thing.”
Sadly, as we read the story, we find that they were not at all like Barnabas. Outwardly they seemed to be, but inwardly they were of quite a different character. They were Barnabas’ opposite. Barnabas was giving his goods out of thanksgiving to God and concern for God’s people. He was honest about it. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be treated the way Barnabas was treated, but they were not honest. They sold the property, looked at the money, saw how nice it was, and then kept back some of it for themselves while giving the rest, pretending to give it all.
Maybe they had intended to give it all at first. But the more they looked at it, the more they loved it. And so, even if it had not been in their hearts before, the evil of their hypocrisy was hatched. They thought, “Nobody knows how much we got for the sale of this property, and we certainly have enough expenses today, what with our lifestyle and all. Why don’t we just keep part of it? Nobody will know. Let’s keep part and give the rest. Then people will say, ‘They are just like Barnabas.’”
There is no perfect church, not even the church of the apostles. I read Acts 4:32, where it says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had,” and I think, “Ah, there’s the perfect church.” But it wasn’t. Even this church had Ananias and Sapphira in it.
Someone once told Charles Spurgeon that they were leaving his church because they were going to find a perfect church. Spurgeon, who had a great deal of wit and sometimes was more forthright than people dare to be today, said, “When you find it, please don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.”
I worry when people come to Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where I serve, and express an exalted idea of what they find there. Nobody has ever told me that they are joining Tenth because it is perfect—I suppose because, if they were saying it to me, it would be perfectly evident that the church is not perfect, at least as long as I am around. But often people are quite enthusiastic when they come. They say things like, “I have finally found it. This is the church for me. It is what I have always wanted.” I get worried because I think, “Just let a week go by, a month, a year. Let them get to know us a little bit, and that enthusiasm will vanish.” I would hope, because God does work in us, that they also find good things as well. I know they can find fellowship, faithfulness to the Word of God, people who will be concerned for them and pray for them. Tenth is a good church. But there is no perfect church, not even in Jerusalem.
Most of us know that. But it is important for us to repeat it if, for no other reason, so we will remember to pray for our congregations. We need to pray that God will help us do better, protect us from Satan, and keep us faithful to Himself.
1It is possible that Barnabas owned property in Jerusalem, of course, and that he sold that property. But Barnabas was a Levite, and Levites were not supposed to own property in Israel. Besides, Luke’s identification of him as a citizen of Cyprus is most likely intended to suggest that the land he owned was there.