One of the most obvious facts that stands out in the biblical record is that, as Christians, we are to impact non-Christians with our life-style, both personally and corporately. That kind of witness includes many things—our ethics, our morality, and our attitudes and actions toward others. However, no aspect of our life-style is illustrated more specifically and graphically in the New Testament than the way we view and use our material possessions. This aspect of our life-style stands out immediately in the New Testament as an important dynamic in penetrating the materialistic world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a distinct correlation between how Christians use their material possessions and the way people respond to the message of salvation. This should not surprise us. God's great purpose in sending His Son into the world was to redeem sinful people. "I have come," Jesus proclaimed, "that they might have life and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Consequently, all that we have in this world in terms of material possessions can and should be used to achieve this purpose and to carry out the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19-20).
I am not speaking at this juncture of financially supporting missionaries and other Christian workers to enable them to carry out the Great Commission—though this should certainly be a prominent part of every Christian's life and experience. Money and ministry always go together. However, at this moment, I am referring to the way Christians use their material possessions as a means to demonstrate their deep love for one another.
This principle is illustrated immediately and dramatically by the Christians in Jerusalem. God-fearing Jews had come from all over the New Testament world to participate in the Feast of Pentecost—a fifty-day celebration. On the final day—the Day of Pentecost—the Holy Spirit came and the church was born. Thousands of Grecian Jews who were converted to Jesus Christ decided to stay in Jerusalem rather than return to their homes in various parts of the Roman world.
This is understandable since they were unaware of God's timetable regarding the return of Christ. The revelatory fact that they were to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) became clouded in the midst of what was happening in their lives. They focused on one clear prophetic reality: Jesus Christ would return to Jerusalem as the reigning King. These God-fearing Jews were well aware of Zechariah's words: "On that day," he prophesied, "living water will flow out of Jerusalem.... The Lord will be king over the whole earth" (Zechariah 14:8-9).
Thousands of these new believers decided to stay in Jerusalem, no doubt waiting for the Messiah to return as He said He would. In the meantime, they began to practice in an extraordinary way the new commandment Jesus had given His disciples shortly before He went to the cross: "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Jesus added, "All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).
The Christians in Jerusalem immediately began to practice what Jesus had taught them. "Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:45). Those who owned homes in Jerusalem opened their doors to those from other places in the world, and "they broke bread... and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." Through this great demonstration of love and unselfishness, these new believers began to penetrate the materialistic culture that characterized Judaism. Luke recorded that they "were enjoying the favor of all the people." More and more Jews recognized that Jesus Christ was the true Messiah, "and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
Though social and cultural dynamics vary today in different parts of the world, materialistic attitudes and actions have always been a part of people's lives worldwide, and it is still God's will that Christians use their possessions in ways that flesh out Christ's commandment to "love one another" in unselfish and nonmaterialistic ways. When they do, those who do not know Jesus Christ personally will be encouraged to put their faith in Him (SCP 1).
Several years before the church was born, Jesus shared another startling commandment with His followers on a mountainside in Galilee. He exhorted them: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:42).
Jesus was dealing with basic attitudes toward those He identified as our enemies—those who may even hate us. Christ was teaching that we are not to demand "eye for eye" and "tooth for tooth" (Matthew 5:38). William Hendriksen summarizes this passage, concluding that "we have no right to hate the person who tries to deprive us of our possessions. Love even towards him should fill our hearts and reveal itself in our actions."
Jesus was certainly not teaching that we should allow people to manipulate or take undue advantage of us. If we do, we are contributing to their irresponsibility. However, He was teaching that it is possible to use our material possessions to express, at least in a token way, the same love Christ demonstrated for His enemies when He gave His life for those who condemned Him and nailed Him to the cross.
When Stephen was being stoned because of his witness for Christ, "he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them'" (Acts 7:60). In essence, this is exactly what Christ did when He died on the cross. Looking down on His enemies, He cried, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
We can conclude that a Christian like Stephen, who demonstrated love toward those who were stoning him, would never hesitate to help meet the economic needs of his enemies (Matthew 5:42). Stephen has given us a remarkable demonstration of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), of giving your "cloak as well as your tunic" (Matthew 5:40), and of going two miles when your enemy "forces you to go one mile" (Matthew 5:41).
Following the Day of Pentecost, Jerusalem was filled with Christians who were willing to practice these attitudes and actions toward their enemies—a marvelous demonstration of God's grace that enabled these believers to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. In so doing, thousands of Jews responded to the gospel. There is no greater demonstration of God's love in Christ than to take what belongs to us and share it with someone else—especially if that person is an enemy of the cross of Christ (SCP 23).
Strange as it may seem, there are many opportunities in the world to practice this principle. All we need do is look for them. In our own church, we have been intensely involved in supporting an inner-city ministry, not only with our material possessions but with our presence in that community. We began this process by financially supporting a mature Christian couple who lived in the area. The couple, in turn, created a setting and structure for our own people to minister in that culture. This involved, first of all, helping to purchase and refurbish a large facility to serve as a center to meet the material and emotional needs of people—including food, clothes, medical attention, and education. The meeting of such needs eventually led to the founding of a church in that culture.
The Jerusalem believers demonstrated dramatically that Christians who are unselfish and benevolent become a unique verification to non-Christians that Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God (SCP 49). The way they lived out their faith impacted the non-Christian world and encouraged people to respond in faith.
Several years later, a woman named Dorcas illustrated in a personal way this dynamic process of evangelism. Her love and good deeds were known throughout the city of Joppa (Acts 9:36). She used the skills she had, as well as her resources, to make clothes for needy people (Acts 9:39). Though it was the miracle of her resurrection at the hand of Peter that became a specific verification of the death and resurrection of Christ, it was also the beautiful example of her unselfish life-style that helped open the door for the gospel and added an enduring impact to Peter's miracle.
The world is and always has been filled with selfish people. Because of the principle of sin that is operative in all of us, we naturally tend to look out for ourselves. As a result, Christians such as Dorcas, who really care about others, stand out and form a unique verification that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, the one who can bring people who are dead in their "transgressions and sins" back to life (Ephesians 2:1).
The Bible is exceedingly practical. Through His apostolic representatives, God has spoken to almost every situation in life. Interestingly, the diligence with which we Christians apply ourselves in the work-a-day world is an important factor in impacting non-Christians with the gospel.
Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul had to deal with the problem of laziness: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent upon anybody" (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
Perhaps these believers had heard about the Jerusalem Christians and how they cared for each other. Perhaps in their own poverty they had received gifts from benevolent Christians and had used this as an opportunity to take advantage of others' unselfishness. Or perhaps they were just so excited about the prospect of being delivered from their earthly circumstances that they were spending all of their time talking about the second coming of Christ and not working to earn a living. Whatever the circumstances, Paul had to admonish some of them.
The principle that God wants all Christians to learn and to apply is crystal clear in this New Testament letter. Christians should work hard to provide for their economic needs so that they are not criticized by unbelievers for being lazy and irresponsible (SCP 64).
Paul modeled this principle in his own personal ministry. Even though he had a right to financial support as a minister of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12), he did not use this right when he initially preached the gospel among the Thessalonians. "Surely you remember, brothers," he wrote, "our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you" (1 Thessalonians 2:9).
As we will see in a future chapter, Paul was not teaching that Christian leaders should always preach the gospel without financial support. There are times when financial support is best and necessary. But the point is that the apostle Paul not only taught a strong work ethic, he also practiced it in his own life—even if it meant working "night and day." And most important, his motivation to work hard in this instance was to be a strong witness to people who did not know Christ as personal Savior.
Paul believed so strongly in practicing a biblical work ethic before the unsaved world that he actually exhorted Christians to separate themselves from other believers who are persistently irresponsible (SCP 65). When some of the Thessalonian Christians did not respond to his exhortations in his first letter, he zeroed in on the subject again in his second letter: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Initially, Paul exhorted them regarding this matter after he and his fellow missionaries led them to Christ (2 Thessalonians 3:10). When he later wrote to them, he reminded them of his own example as a missionary (1 Thessalonians 2:7-9). He also repeated in writing the exhortation to work hard to meet their own needs, something he had told them face-to-face (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Finally, he ended his first letter by asking all the Christians in Thessalonica to "warn those who are idle" (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Against this backdrop, Paul's instructions regarding church discipline are understandable. Some of these believers had persistently and blatantly ignored both his example and his exhortations. It was time to take action.
This principle demonstrates dramatically how displeased God is when Christians do not work hard to earn a living and, in the process, take advantage of others. In a sense, Paul grouped "lazy Christians" into the same category as "immoral Christians" (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Paul was underscoring that these sins bring reproach on the cause of Christ and cause people to reject the gospel.
Though this kind of discipline should be administered with a great deal of sensitivity and humility, it must be done if we intend to obey God. Since some of the Thessalonian Christians had been repeatedly taught what was proper and right regarding work habits, and since they refused to respond, they were to be excluded from the fellowship of believers.
This exhortation, of course, does not apply to believers who want to work but cannot. Rather, it applies to those who can work but will not. Hopefully, when this principle is applied in love, those involved will respond and walk in the will of God. This process in itself becomes an unusual witness to the watching world.
Paul had some things to say that were even more specific regarding a Christian's work ethic: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving" (Colossians 3:23-24).
The context for this exhortation related to slaves and the way they were to do their work. Though Paul did not condone slavery, he attacked this social disease by teaching slaves that the fastest way to freedom was to serve their masters as if they were serving God. They should obey not only when they were being watched (to "win their favor") but to obey with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord (Colossians 3:22). Paul was reminding these slaves that, in reality, they were serving the Lord Christ when they served their earthly masters (Colossians 3:24).
Translated into our culture today, the principle is clear. As Christian employees, we should work hard to serve our employers (whether Christian or non-Christian). And we are to do this as if we are actually serving the Lord Jesus Christ (SCP 104). In so doing, we become witnesses in this world. How tragic when Christians who are irresponsible in their work habits attempt to share the gospel with their employers and fellow employees. They bring reproach on Jesus Christ, as well as on His Body, the church.
Paul quickly reminded the Colossians that what he was sharing with slaves was a two-way street. "Masters," he wrote, "provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven" (Colossians 4:1). When Christians in the New Testament began to love their slaves as Christ loved them, it literally destroyed this social structure among believers.
Again, the principle is clear. Whereas Christian employees should work hard to serve their employers as if they were actually serving the Lord, conversely, Christian employers should always treat their employees fairly—just the way they want God to treat them (SCP 105).
Again, this fairness should be equally applied to Christians and non-Christians. There is no room for prejudice. Those who are in the role of employer should do everything they possibly can to encourage their employees. This involves paying them a living wage. And when employees work hard and faithfully to increase profits, the Christian employer should do everything he can to share those profits equitably with those who made it possible.
What a tremendous witness this would be to unsaved employees. Nothing would do more to establish trust, respect, and credibility. In this sense, "money talks!" Christian employers who treat their employees fairly and generously will have a listening ear when opportunities come to present the gospel of Jesus Christ.