Perhaps our generation will best be remembered as the generation of the rebate. You know what the rebate is. The rebate is that misleading, yet highly provocative gimmick that lures the unsuspecting customer into the store to purchase that which he does not need.
You know as well as I do that, when it comes to saving money, most rebates are worthless. The initial purchase price of the product assures that. Yet as strange as it may be, rebates work. In the past few years we have seen rebates on all types of items, trailers, cars, and even machinery. We have seen rebates on medium-sized things such as furniture, dishwashers, washing machines and even small items like electric toothbrushes and hair dryers.
What is it that is so alluring about rebates? A rebate appeals to that part of our human nature that wants something in return. How will that profit me? What will I get out of it? Some of you are involved in an evangelism program. You may be a Sunday School teacher, you may be involved in committee work, or a deacon. It is possible to become so concerned about what we get in return for ministering, that ministry becomes more of a feather in our cap than a furtherance of the gospel.
Our text tells us that the Christian's attitude toward ministry determines his effectiveness in ministry. There are two implications that come from this text.
I. Ministry Thrives on Selfless Giving
We need to note two specific attributes in the life of Barnabas. Barnabas was an initiator. When Luke tells us that Barnabas was a Levite, he is not simply giving us biographical information. For Luke to designate Barnabas as a Levite sets Barnabas apart from other Levites. Levites were very antagonistic toward the gospel, but Barnabas was one of the first to be won to the gospel by the apostles. If you are a Star Trek fan, you have heard Captain Kirk state an objective at the beginning of that show: "to go where no man has gone before." It is very difficult to do that; to go where no one has gone before, to do something that no one has ever done before, to serve one that no one has ever served before. Barnabas was an initiator.
Second, he was concerned about the needs of others. Barnabas, in an act of generosity, sold a piece of land and brought the sum of money and placed it at the apostle's feet. Doubtless many of you from childhood have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. Do you recall one of the individuals who passed by that victim. He was a Levite. Barnabas was a Levite, but he demolishes the character of the Levite in Jesus' parable.
I think it was that same type of virtue that characterized the lives of Adoniram and Ann Judson, who spent a lifetime in Burma, India. It was after six years of open hostility, persecution and a period of imprisonment that one man was won to Christ.
We need to know that ministry thrives on selfless giving. But on the other side of that coin.
II. Ministry Dies with Selfish Giving
Whenever you find an individual like Barnabas, a man who gives of himself, an initiator who is concerned about the needs of others, you also find men and women nearby who are miserable imitations. That's what we find in the fifth chapter of Acts.
The new Christian church had previously suffered a severe attack from outside when the Sanhedrin struck out violently at Peter and John. There is a more critical attack here. This attack comes from within. Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and brought part of the money to the apostles, but they gave the impression that they had brought all of it. Lest we misinterpret the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, let us clarify what is taking place.
Whereas Barnabas was an initiator, Ananias and Sapphira were imitators. They were trying to keep up with the Jones. Their sin was not that they gave some of their money to the apostles. It was their choice, their prerogative. In fact Peter said in verse 4 it was a voluntary thing for them to do. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was of covetousness, of religious hypocrisy, of self glorification. They wanted something in return.
Billy Graham, in his book How to Be Born Again, recalled a story surrounding a group of freshmen college students. They signed up for a course they thought would be easy. It was a course in the study of bugs. It was most unusual. They went to class and in the first week they became aware that this professor was serious about bugs. He knew everything about every bug. He lectured the entire time about bug hair, bug legs, bug wings. He knew every species. He knew every sub-species. You can imagine what a freshman class of students would think after a week or so of that. They decided they would trick their professor, so one Saturday afternoon they got together and decided they were going to collect bugs. They collected 7 or 8 different varieties of bugs, a whole conglomeration of bugs. They returned to campus, killed the bugs in a nice humane way and they dried them out that afternoon. Then they began to take a little tube of super glue and glue parts of the bugs onto another bug. They took a leg and glued this leg here, a wing over here and then put a head over here, another type of wing over here until they had the most unique, phenomenal-looking bug you have ever seen. They were elated with what they were doing.
They walked into the professor's office early Monday morning, anxious to see what this professor would do and say about this particular variety of bug. They went in and said "we were so moved by your lecture last week. Over the weekend we found this unique bug just down the street." The professor looked at it in his hands for awhile, he turned it over and he held it under a light, he laid it down and did several things with it as the guys and girls in the group sat back almost chuckling under their breath. Finally he sat down and with great relief said, "it's a humbug."
You don't have to be very old, you don't have to be very educated, you don't have to have a master's degree or a bachelor's degree, you don't have to have much insight to know when you're looking at an imitation. Ananias and Sapphira were imitators. They were keeping up with the Jones. They were following after a man who had won admiration and wanted something in return.
Ananias and Sapphira were not only imitators. Whereas Barnabas was concerned about the needs of others, Ananias and Sapphira were concerned about their own wants, the things that they desired, their own gain. There are some commentators who in looking at this passage believe that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not quite as bad as it appears; that their motives were right at the beginning but that their motives changed when a large selling price came for their property. I disagree with that. I believe it was wrong from the very beginning. It was premeditated. They had discussed beforehand how to handle the transaction. It was a deliberate desire on their part to get something in return–a rebate if you will.
One of the most remarkable bodies of water in the world is 47 miles long and 10 miles wide. It is 12,990 feet below sea level, and is located in one of the hottest regions on the face of the earth. It receives up to 5 million tons of water a day. There are no outlets, no rivers running from this reservoir. Because there are no outlets the water is 7 times as salty as the ocean. The Dead Sea is the epitome of selfishness. Its waters are vile and stagnant.
It is very possible that our ministry can become vile and useless. Whether a Sunday School teacher, a music minister, a deacon, a committee member, it is very possible that ministry in our lives can suffer because of selfishness. Ministry dies with selfish giving.
The hymn writer, Isaac Watts, captures the very essence of what it means to be a selfless giver when he wrote "But drops of grief can ne'er repay the debt of love I owe. Here Lord, I give myself away, 'Tis all that I can do."