“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…”
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul rhetorically asks, “What do we have that we have not received?”
At the same time, in another context, Jesus says that it is better to give than to receive, and almost everyone who hears that phrase – not just Christians – will say that they like the sound of that…
And, yet, at the same time, look at what people do….
Are people generally oriented more around giving or taking? Does all the debt in our nation have anything to say about the matter?
And not only are human beings takers – and ungrateful ones at that – they are thieves as well….
Stealing, the 16th century church Reformer Martin Luther said, comes pretty naturally to us fallen creatures…
In his explanation to the 7th commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” Luther landed some real zingers. And he did not just have “petty” criminals in his sights:
“For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor…to steal…is to be grasping…wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor…
He speaks of
…nimbleness and queer finances or dexterous tricks [which] take advantage of [one’s neighbor]”
…[They] are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
People are saying “check your privilege” a lot today – and not always for good reasons. At the same time, there is something to that, isn’t there?
“…if all who are thieves, and yet do not wish to be called such, were to be hanged on gallows, the world would soon be devastated, and there would be a lack both of executioners and gallows.”
The “blue-collar” worker doesn’t get off the hook either… though here I’ll let you check out Luther’s Large Catechism later for more…[ii]
Luther then sums up the problem as follows:
“…this is the commonest craft and the largest guild on earth, and if we regard the world throughout all conditions of life, it is nothing else than a vast, wide stall, full of great thieves…whoever can steal and rob openly goes free and secure, unmolested by any one, and even demands that he be honored…”
So far Luther. So using one’s position of power or knowledge of what others don’t know to extract from them their time, their labor, their attention…
…and taking more of the winnings, the earnings, the pot, the “worldly success”, the “mammon”… than one should!
…perhaps all the while justifying what one does by insisting, for example, that it, is, after all, a “dog-eat-dog” world, that the buyer should beware… or that this isn’t really a “zero-sum” game…
How easy it is for us to fail to trust the Lord to meet our every need for daily bread!
And to steal, even in less awful ways… – sometimes even without thinking about it.
To not give credit where it’s due!
To take that cookie in the cookie jar!
To download that game from a pirate site!
To waste time on the internet at work!
To take money from others, intending to pay it back, and never doing so…
To show a lack of concern for… disrespect the property, the possessions, and the enterprises of others…..
And, also… to put another person in your debt through unjust means.
And this, frankly, is demonic.
We remember that the devil is said by Jesus to come to steal, kill, and destroy….
Stealing and killing, huh?
Well, if you think about it, the most extreme example of this abject selfishness and disregard for others – the apex of it all – is finally seen in stealing the life of another human being…
What do I mean?
Well, not to confuse the commandments, but stealing and killing really are related aren’t they?
On the one hand, we say that for murderers “life is cheap” as the value, the worth, of his victim – and I’m not talking in a monetary sense here – doesn’t register…
At the same time, we also see that throughout human history – up until the more recent Christian eras at least – there are plenty of examples of evil human actions culminating in the act of stealing another life…
…taking another’s life from himself and others …precisely because it was valuable…
And I’m talking about state-sanctioned murder.
In the Western world, animal sacrifice was common in major city-centers until the time of Constantine.
But I’m not talking about that. I am taking about offering up another human being in sacrifice, in a desperate move to appease God… and to achieve His aid, favor and help…
…Or, more accurately, this is done for the false gods of one’s imagination.
All of man’s coveting and greed… and then his taking and stealing… climaxes in the fact that he realizes – even if only subconsciously – that, with all the evil he commits – the disrespect of parents, the hate, the lust, the greed, the lies, the coveting – he has a debt.
There is much that he owes…
Even those who don’t believe in a personal God will find themselves acting as if this is the case… because it is.
Hence we have Eastern notions like those of karma which, simply put, says that “what goes around certainly will come around”… even if it takes something like re-incarnation for this to happen. The piper will be paid eventually…
More secular people today might even explicitly say things that imply we have a debt that we owe to the universe, perhaps even how we have made “Mother Nature” angry….
And then, as people find themselves liking Christianity less and less, things that once seemed very strange – unthinkable even – start to happen…
For example, in California’s new mandatory ethnic studies program we see that it includes prayers to Aztec gods.
Somehow, Christianity has come to be seen as so oppressive to some people that they would now like to introduce gods into California public schools that will speed up Christianity’s replacement. Christianity expunged the Aztec gods at one point, and so it is only fair to do what one can to reverse the process.
Never mind, as Nathan Blake says, that the gods of the mighty Aztec civilization were worshipped by human sacrifice, which sometimes included the practice of torturing children to death…
Never mind that “[t]he Aztecs…were imperialists who enslaved and murdered the peoples around them, which made it easy for the Spanish conquistadors to recruit indigenous allies…”
Never mind that “[t]o mourn the demise of the Aztecs’s bloodthirsty gods is to take sides against the indigenous people sacrificed to those gods….”
What is going on here? It is the confusion that results when pagan ways are again sought in a Christ-haunted land…
As Cameron Hilditch notes, these folks are trying to “out-Christian Christianity itself, taking Christian concern for the downtrodden to the point of sympathy for the devil.”
Blake warns that “This curriculum also reveals a complacency about civilization; it forgets the demons that haunted humanity for so much of our history… it resummons, in name, if not yet, in fact, the demons that have haunted [us].”
And this is exactly right. One only needs to go to nations like Madagascar today, of the eastern coast of Africa, where the Christian faith continues to gain a foothold in more and more regions that previously featured animist religion, to see that this is the case…
Even many of the non-believers in a nation like Madagascar can see that the traditional religious beliefs there keep the people in bondage. Whether the people feel compelled to offer sacrifices to beings they understand to be their ancestors or animals spirits, they do so, ultimately, out of a spirit of fear…
I should tell you that Blake has a very hopeful answer to this fear, even when it reaches its worst levels. He exclaims that
“…the demons retreated as word of the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] spread, for He had conquered sin and death, by which man had been bound to the demons. Unlike the demons, He did not demand human sacrifice to earn favor, for He had become human to be sacrificed on our behalf…”[iii]
This is the true God!
The Aztec gods, of course, are no true gods but as the Bible says, they are in fact demons.
So, how did bringing demon worship into public schools become a priority for some Californians?
Simply put, by rejecting Christ, forcefully… or not so forcefully… by a thousand cuts – and infections – caused by life’s riches, cares, and pleasures…
By trying to take the world by force, even to the point of feeling they could steal it from God Himself…
So, that is where things can lead.
That’s how bad it can get.
I hope we don’t keep moving in this direction, but it seems in some quarters that is indeed where we are going… and so perhaps that is a good word to tell you how you can be praying for our nation…
Back to Acts.
What we see there shows us a more hopeful picture – the opposite picture in a sense – doesn’t it? Where we, as they say “don’t love things and use people,” but the opposite: love people, use things.
And yet, at the same time, maybe today’s Bible passage in Acts has us just a bit bothered too…
And now, after I started talking about the endgame of human sacrifice to secure divine grace and power, you might be thinking something like
“Well, I don’t think I’m currently on the road to throwing in my lot with Satan – but I’m not quite sure I get where this passage is going either… After all, it does sound a bit like communism…”
Well… it’s not communism though because Luke elsewhere in the book of Acts makes it even more clear that:
-this is wholly voluntary
-and people did not actually get rid of all their property (we see this in Acts 12 and the Gospels too: in John 19 as Jesus gives Mary to John),[iv]
-and the working poor, or “proletariat,” did not control the means of production…[v]
And so, with that out of the way, let’s perhaps make ourselves a bit more uncomfortable paying attention to some people who seem very eager to expand on and exult in the early church’s abundance and generosity described in our text!
Here are what some basically pre-communism commentators – from the 17th-19th century – had to say about this passage…
“The description stands parallel with that of Acts 2:42-47, as though the historian delighted to dwell on the continuance, as long as it lasted, of that ideal of a common life of equality and fraternity after which philosophers had yearned, in which the rights of property, though not abolished, were, by the spontaneous action of its owners, made subservient to the law of love, and benevolence was free and full, without the ‘nicely calculated less or more’ of a later and less happy time. The very form of expression implies that the community of goods was not compulsory. The goods still belonged to men, but they did not speak of them as their own. They had learned, as from our Lord’s teaching (Luke 16:10-14), to think of themselves, not as possessors, but as stewards…”[vi]
“There can be no more striking demonstration of union and love than to say of more than five thousand suddenly drawn together that they had one soul! And this union they evinced in every way possible – in their conduct, in their prayers, and in their property. How different would have been the aspect of the church if the union had continued to the present time!”[vii]
Regarding the phrase “and had all things in common,” Gill pronounces
“that is, their worldly goods, their possessions and estates; no man called anything peculiarly his own; and whatever he had, his brother was welcome to, and might as freely take, and use it, as if it was his own….”[viii]
Kind of like when your neighbor comes over and helps himself to your refrigerator, I suppose![ix]
MacLaren points out that this account immediately follows a story of triumph over persecution in the book of Acts and states:
“…because persecution had driven them closer to God and to one another,  the disciples [were] so full of brotherly love and of grace as Luke delights to paint them…. it was a triumph of the Spirit’s influence that the warm stream of brotherly love ran through so many hearts, knit together only by common submission to Jesus.”[x]
Matthew Henry nicely sums up, I think, the exuberance many of the commentators feel here when he proclaims:
“The greatness of the event raised them above the world, and the Holy Ghost filled them with such love, as made every one to be to another as to himself, and so made all things common, not by destroying property, but doing away selfishness, and causing charity. And God who moved them to it, knew that they were quickly to be driven from their possessions in Judea….”[xi]
The contemporary Bible commentator Craig Keener says that “[the history of the reception of this text] reveals various attempts to evade the text’s demands, domesticating them to fit one’s context…” (1028)
… but it doesn’t sound to me like these earlier commentators I just read – perhaps without communism to worry about – were doing too much domestication!
“OK, preacher-man…” you might be thinking… “Don’t we know that communes don’t work? Isn’t this church in Jerusalem the same one that later on the Apostle Paul is taking up a collection for because they are so destitute?”
And what about Luther here too! He tells us that everyone needs to know that it is his duty, at the risk of God’s displeasure, to not deprive our neighbor of gain and to “faithfully  preserve his property for him, to secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one’s livelihood for such service….”
If the church starts doing these kinds of things we see in Acts, won’t Luther’s charge here be forgotten?
Won’t people just become dependent and even demanding?
Well, yes, that is human nature. And not only this, but:
People will always still be greedy. And people will still be lazy. And people will still covet. And people will still envy.
And some people who think this is a really good idea will also try to earn their way to God by doing good!
And some people will sometimes give off airs of self-righteousness as they prove how much they give up!
And, overall, people will forget that, above, all, Jesus commended the poor widow who only contributed a small coin…
Nevertheless, does that means that we should totally avert our eyes from these passages?
Shouldn’t we want this kind of fire – shouldn’t we have these kinds of desires and even try to cultivate generous feelings and actions and programs in our churches – and also know that, ultimately, we are never going to be able to eliminate human sin and suffering?
Think about your own family members and the struggles that you have there – and yet the love and loyalty and acts of sacrifice that keep you strong in the midst of all of it.
Can we Christians, in our congregations, begin to see our brothers and sisters more and more as we might, for example, extended family?[xii]
I know. All of this is hard for me as well.
I confess, I have a lot of learning to do… This passage – and the reading I did on it – wasn’t easy for me to do…
I think that a commentator like Keener is largely right about our not wanting to deal with these passages.
We can acknowledge that when Luke puts this story in the Bible, he does indeed mean to say “This began to fulfill the prophecy of the prophet Joel! This is a harbinger of the true life, the resurrection life, that Jesus Christ has come to bring us!”
And we can intuit that Luke means to encourage us to, at the very least, be creative in the ways that we might continue along these lines, to think about “how, just how, might we be able to do likewise?….”
No doubt, if we were to think that we were to imitate every act that is recorded in the Bible, we’d be missing the boat… and find ourselves in trouble.
I don’t recommend you think that every story recorded in the book of Judges, for example, is prescriptive for the kind of life you should aspire to live. No, much of what is in that book is just descriptive – and gives us a lot of good indications about what not to do!
But I think there, in that book for instance, all of that is quite evident in the text itself – where Judges sums up matters by saying: “in those days, everyone did what was right in his own eyes…”, kind of tipping us off to what I just said… don’t do likewise!
Still, I don’t have any real indication that the book of Acts means to discourage us from the kind of zeal to share that we see here.
Earthly struggles though we’ll continue to have, nothing finally needs to take away from the joy – and even encouragement and inspiration – that this story might ignite in some Christians, or any Christian, depending on the circumstances….
And finally, I think we can say all of this while also acknowledging that Luke himself records that this did not last, that this kind of zeal and fervor – as admirable and good as it was – was not something that the church continued in… Sadly.
I think the old Lutheran commentator Lenski is right when he says it isn’t fair for us to imply that the early Christians were generous here only because their property was insecure because of threats from the Jewish leaders or because they just thought Jesus was going to return immediately and so did it. Also that the poverty that we hear about in this church later on in the New Testament is due to what Luke records here….[xiii]
Again, Keener said: “[the history of the reception of this text] reveals various attempts to evade the text’s demands, domesticating them to fit one’s context…”
As you can see, I’m very sympathetic with Keener’s take here, and I think this text has a lot to teach us… – and at the same time, I think using the word “demand” here has the potential to be misunderstood…
Why do I say that?
Because I’d go so far to say that while we might be encouraged to do what Barnabas, for example, does – this isn’t really demanded of us.
Rather we see that a man like Barnabas is to be a model for us – even an inspiration for us! – but God also doesn’t mean to tie any heavy burdens on your backs here. Paul says that He loves a cheerful giver for a good reason!
I think it is important to say this today because there are more and more Christians, it seems to me, who are basically insisting that if one doesn’t give in exactly the way they think we should give – for this or that reason or historical reason – then one’s Christianity is suspect at best and false at worst.[xiv]
Again, I don’t have time this morning to go into detail here, but this is an important matter for us to keep in mind today too… We simply cannot accept thinking, teaching, like that.
So, how to close out matters?
Broadly speaking, we, of course, face two great dangers.
Envy, as well as a lack of compassion, even, yes, mercy… pity. Those twin evils cause the world to burn.
But our Messiah has come, has faced this world and conquered it, and is coming again…
And yes, it is true that when Jesus Christ sent His disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the instructions He gave them specifically are not meant for all of us.
That said, in His Sermon on the Plain, in Luke 6, He did say more generally:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys….”
Well, certainly, the light that is in conflict with the darkness of our world comes in a limited and hidden way now, carried out by imperfect ministers and servants.
At the same time, how can we not get ready, even now, for the greater light which will dawn upon us?
How can we not start to show now that God’s way, His plan, His future… is different?
Maybe when I say this, you feel a little anger. Martin Luther said:
“When the preacher begins to preach concerning another life about which we should be concerned and for the sake of which we should not behave as though we wanted to stay here forever, then arguments and battles begin.”
That could be the case.
On the other hand, perhaps your feeling upon hearing this is not anger, but glad assent… while you also have some questions and confusion about what it means to be in but not of the world…
Maybe, like that man in the Bible said: “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief?”
Always remember Jesus does not break the bruised reed, snuff out the flickering wick, give a yoke which is heavy and burdensome….
This morning, your Lord does not mean to condemn you, but rather lead you into a deeper understanding of the love that He has for you and all persons….
That we might read these words from Acts this morning and take delight in the picture it paints!
Does this sound right to you, like it does to me, but you often just don’t know how to put it into practice? That is often me too… And I don’t know your circumstances, but I’ll make some attempts anyways…
What could you do to renew relations with family? Not only not “hiding from your own flesh and blood” as the prophet Isaiah puts it, but increasing the joy and love found therein?
Are you one who gives employment? What steps could you take to be even better to your workers …really assure them of their worth… and not just with words?
Are you blessed with good quarters or extra property? What ways could you be more hospitable to those you know around you who are in need?
A man I follow on the internet recently said “I began to truly listen and submit to those who suffered under everything I had earlier claimed was their own fault.”
Even when it sometimes seems like being a victim has become a badge of honor today – and even if we might want to clarify the kind of submission and reason for the submission of which he speaks – is it possible we might learn that we have not always been good at discerning what is oppressive?
And don’t forget what ultimately nurtures us and gives us strength to see this resurrection life that is coming!
Do you help plan worship? What could be done to enrich that worship?
In the architecture, the art, the arrangements, how could the proclamation of the Gospel be lifted up even more?
As God looks to extend His tent, what are some things I can do that would signal, herald, the greatness of God’s Kingdom to come?
Brothers and sisters, we know Christ!
May God’s house be made beautiful! (60:7) In this house of worship, and in all our houses!
May justice never be far from us!
As Isaiah says, may righteousness overtake us and go before us! (see Isaiah 59:9)
For, as He says “the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations”! (61:11)
May we always remember these words, which give salvation to all people… Even us….
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
That is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for us!
Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated – your forgiveness, life, and salvation have been won! — and the final victory is yet to come!
May the Almighty and most Merciful God bless and preserve us…
[i] Previous introduction that I changed:
“People of the Resurrection! This is a difficult verse for us, I think, and so one worth exploring!
As one commentator (Balge) compellingly puts it “We do not read of a generation gap, of class conflict, or of social cliques in the Jerusalem church. What we find is a people who are ‘one in heart and mind.’”
I have been digging into this topic a lot in the past week or so, and want to share with you all the things I have been learning from some of the great lights in the church!
One of the main things I always remember about early church history are the accounts of how the early Christians took care of one another. A couple short quotes always stand out in particular to me. One, is the expression: “Those Christians – they’ll take anybody!” (“the socially objectionable classes” – Celsus). Another one of them is “look how they love one another!”
I am greatly challenged when I read these old words from the church father, Jerome:
“When you see people freezing outside the church in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home into the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.” (ACCS, 211)
Or, from the 4th and 5th centuries, St. Augustine:
“[God] find[s] fault… with the fasts of the quarrelsome; he is looking for the fasts of the kindhearted. He is finding fault with those who oppress others; he is looking for those who give relief. He is finding fault with those who stir up strife; he is looking for those who set free…” (211)
Let’s not forget in the book of Deuteronomy 15:4, the Lord had said that “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you.” God’s blessing in the Promised Land is connected with the end of poverty.
And in our text from Acts this morning, right after hearing about how the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, we hear that there were no needy persons among them, as, from time to time
“… those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the salesand put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need…”
This isn’t a one-off event for Luke, the author of the book of Acts, which records the earliest history of Christ’s church. Just a couple chapters earlier, we read about something similar, where,
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
It seems these must have been heady days, and we see continued hints that something akin to this kind of activity continued throughout the New Testament. One thinks about how even though some theologians like to set the book of James vs. the Apostle Paul, both men seem agreed on the fact that the early Christians were those who believed possessions and status were almost an afterthought – and that a desire for both impartiality and charity more or less flowed like a steady stream from the early believers.
James, for example, writes…
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…”
Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul, the champion of justification by faith, writes in the book of Galatians:
“6But as for the highly esteemed—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritisma—those leaders added nothing to me. 7On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted to preach the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8For the One who was at work in Peter’s apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in my apostleship to the Gentiles.
9And recognizing the grace that I had been given, James, Cephas,b and John—those reputed to be pillars—gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do…”
“They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do…”
Again, as we saw from our Acts readings, this was a priority for early Christians…
It is said that one of the reasons for fasting – other than in order to discipline one’s own body so as to have it under control – is so that one might have more food to give to those who can really use it.
One also notes that when Jesus sent out His disciples to preach the Good News, He often sent them out with the bare minimum in terms of materials goods. Furthermore, we learn that not only did Jesus rely mainly on wealthier donors to do His ministry, but that the Apostles themselves – like those we read about in the book of Acts this morning, it seems – basically had “a common purse” which they all relied on in the midst of their ministry… At the same time, we also should not think that just because they had “left everything” to follow Him that they had nothing… (Barnes: “They regarded themselves as one family, having common needs, and there was no use or propriety in their possessing extensive property by themselves. Yet even then it is probable that some of them retained an interest in their property which was not supposed to be necessary to be devoted to the common use….”)
We know that the Apostle John, for instance, had his own home, as this is mentioned to us at the crucifixion when Jesus says: “Here is your mother…”
[ii] “The same I say also of mechanics, workmen, and day-laborers, who all follow their wanton notions, and never know enough ways to overcharge people, while they are lazy and unfaithful in their work. All these are far worse than sneak-thieves, against whom we can guard with locks and bolts, or who, if apprehended, are treated in such a manner that they will not do the same again. But against these no one can guard, no one dare even look awry at them or accuse them of theft, so that one would ten times rather lose from his purse. For here are my neighbors, good friends, my own servants, from whom I expect good [every faithful and diligent service], who defraud me first of all….”
[iii] More from Nathanael Blake:
Against this, we must remember that the demons have been defeated. Around two thousand years ago, another empire, powerful, magnificent, and sometimes cruel, casually crucified a man. He was one of many it condemned, and with little thought. He had taught remarkably and even performed miracles, but He still died an agonizing, ignominious death.
And then something happened. He rose from the dead. Not as a ghost, not as a spirit, but bodily, with a heart pumping blood and lungs breathing oxygen. And the demons retreated as word of the resurrection spread, for He had conquered sin and death, by which man had been bound to the demons. Unlike the demons, He did not demand human sacrifice to earn favor, for He had become human to be sacrificed on our behalf.
This is a revelation that goes beyond making us moral, for it transforms our being. Before the perfection of the Divine Victim, moral remonstrances are both affirmed and humbled. We are, at best, like the blessed criminal crucified with Christ, acknowledging his own guilt and need for mercy even while rebuking his companion for reviling Christ.
Like that man, for whom civilization could no longer give anything but death, we may look to Christ’s promise of something better than civilization — the kingdom of heaven.
[iv] What does the Bible say about property?
Matthew Poole: “So far forth as might relieve the present necessities of believers; not that every one parted with all that he had, for that had taken away (at least) the use and force of the eighth commandment; for where there is no propriety there can be no theft.”
Well, the eighth commandment still matters though it would not if there were not property…
In this earthly life we are always going to need this thing we call ownership…(note Acts 12:12: houses were kept!)
At the same time, we ultimately should always regard all of our possessions as belonging to God. In this sense, when we think about tithing, we really should be talking about stewardship and vocation. How has God called me to most wisely use the blessings that He has given me?
“Since the focus is on the sale of possessions, Luke does not describe an early Christian ‘community of goods’ but the enunciation of monetary assets for the sake of the poor” (182).
Earlier, he had pointed out:
“The statement ‘they held all things in common’… can mean that the believers sold everything they owned and pooled the proceeds (as the Essenes required their members to do). Or it an means that they remained owners of their property while being wiling to use their possessions for the common good. In view of the details given in 2:45 and 4:32-5:11, the second meaning is preferable.
In Qumran, the surrender of one’s property upon entry in the Qumran community was obligatory. The paradox that the members of the Essene community are said to contribute all their wealth, while they still appear to have retained private property, can be explained as follows: Jews in the ancient world did not regard the adjectives ‘private’ and ‘public,’ when related to property , as mutually exclusive as we do today. Property that an individual ‘had’ could be understood to ‘be’ both for the individual and for the group. Thus, ‘the donor offers the right of usufruct to another but retains the right of ownership,’ a concept that explains the practice of shared property at Qumran…” (181)
[v] Lutheran Study Bible: “Preview and foretaste of the restoration of Paradise-like conditions in heaven. God gives us property and resources for our neighbor’s benefit. The early Christians fully shared with one another, but not in the same way as the failed communist experiments of the twentieth century. Here there is no compulsion or involvement of the State – only believers are affected, and only goods are shared, not their production” (1840)
MacLaren, writing in the 19th century, also says “There is nothing of modern communism in all this, but there is a lesson to the modern Church as to the obligations of wealth and the claims of brotherhood, which is all but universally disregarded. The spectre of communism is troubling every nation, and it will become more and more formidable, unless the Church learns that the only way to lay it is to live by the precepts of Jesus and to repeat in new forms the spirit of the primitive Church. The Christian sense of stewardship, not the abolition of the right of property, is the cure for the hideous facts which drive men to shriek ‘Property is theft.’”
Schnabel, in 2012, writes: “Luke does not describe a community that denies the appropriateness of private property (as in a monastic order), not does he propagate a world-denying ‘communism of love.’ Rather, Luke presents a pragmatic ethics concerning possessions in which the needs of the poor took center stage. The motivation to see possessions and share the proceeds with believers in need was grounded in their concern for the poor, as well as Jesus’ teaching about not hoarding material possessions (Luke 6:30-36) but renouncing them (Luke 12:33-34)” (183).
[vi] Ellicot also states: “Here there was a literal fulfilment of his Lord’s words (Luke 12:33), a society founded, not on the law of self-interest and competition, but on sympathy and self-denial.”
[vii] More Barnes:
“One soul – This phrase also denotes “close and tender union.” No expression could denote it more strikingly than to say of friends they have one soul. Plutarch cites an ancient verse in his life of Cato of Utica with this very expression – “Two friends, one soul” (Grotius). Thus, Diogenes Laertius also (5, Acts 1:11) says respecting Aristotle, that “being asked what was a friend, answered that it was one soul dwelling in two bodies” (Kuinoel).”
[viii] Elsewhere, he writes: “Neither said any of them, that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; though he had a peculiar right unto them, yet he did not claim that right, nor insist on it, nor so much as speak of it, nor make use of his substance as if it was his own, reserving it for himself, or even disposing of it himself; but exposed it to the free use of the whole body, to enjoy it equally with himself…”
[ix] Later he states: “Neither was there any among them that lacked,…. Bread to eat, or clothes to wear, or any of the necessaries of life; which shows their great charity, and gives a reason why they were in so much favour with the people, because they took so much care of their poor; and this flowed from the grace of God bestowed upon them….”
[x] He also states:
“…the common feeling of brotherhood was stronger than the self-centred regard which looks on possessions as to be used for self. Thus they possessed as though they possessed not, and each held his property as a trust from God for his brethren.”
[xi] Matthew Henry also talks to us about some of the stand-out people the book goes on to mention, namely Barnabas, whose name means, “Son of Encouragement”:
“Here is one in particular mentioned, remarkable for this generous charity; it was Barnabas. As one designed to be a preacher of the gospel, he disentangled himself from the affairs of this life. When such dispositions prevail, and are exercised according to the circumstances of the times, the testimony will have very great power upon others…”
[xii] And you know, with family, you can’t get rid of them because… they’re family.
[xiii] See Lenski, p. 119. He goes on to actually assert:
“…this was due to the fact that the Herodian persecution scattered this first congregation to the four winds while famine and hard times set in and caused distress. What Luke describes is a fine display of Christian charity. The same motive is still active in the church today. Many rich still offer large sum, and the rest still bring their portion, and Christian need never waits long for relief” (119, 120).
He also adds:
“There were many beggars among the Jews. We meet them constantly… The believers had none. The model her given has been followed by the church since that time. Every congregation takes care of its poor and unfortunate, and we need not add how extensive the arrangements are for doing this work through entire church bodies in regular institutions. Even the world has learned something from the church in this line…”
Using all the resources on BibleHub.com, one will find that a number of commentators have a number of reflections on the this passage that seem like very good ideas. Some are supported by Scripture, and others are not. Here is a summary (along with many quotes)of some of the more “conservative” takes on this passage:
Already in 6:1 we are told about the widows being neglected in the daily distribution of the food (Acts 6:1)
Going along with the end of Henry’s comment just mentioned, Benson says that a lot of what happened during this time was extraordinary, and that much of this activity may have taken place because the church took seriously Christ’s words about the impending destruction of the temple; the invasion of Jerusalem. In other words, fear drove the giving more than the love Luke seems to be talking about.
(Cambridge Bible for schools and colleges: “With the words of the angels still in their ears (Acts 1:11), “This same Jesus shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven,” the disciples were no doubt full of the thought that the return of Jesus was not far distant. Such an opinion spreading among the new disciples would make them ready to resign their worldly goods, and to devote all things to the use of their brethren. For so the spreading of a knowledge of Christ could be made the chief work of the whole body of believers.”)
“…but they had all things common; which was what they were not obliged to, but it was a free and voluntary action of their own, and so is not binding on others; nor indeed is their practice to be imitated, in the direct manner in which they did it, for their case was peculiar. They were not only every day liable to persecutions and to have their possessions seized, and their goods confiscated; but they also knew, that in process of time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and they could not tell how soon; and therefore judged it right to sell off their possessions, and throw the money into one common stock, for their mutual support, and for the carrying on the common cause of Christ….”
“Sold them, and brought the prices.—Both words imply continuous and repeated action. It is possible that besides the strong impulse of love, they were impressed, by their Lord’s warnings of wars and coming troubles, with the instability of earthly possessions. Landed property in Palestine was likely to be a source of anxiety rather than profit, As Jeremiah had shown his faith in the future restoration of his people by purchasing the field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6-15), so there was, in this sale of their estates, a proof of faith in the future desolation which their Master had foretold (Matthew 24:16-21).”)
Some, in fact, also argue that this kind of thing was necessary because of all the people from outside of Jerusalem who had come there for the Passover, found themselves believing in Jesus at Pentecost, and then needing this kind of arrangement because they were not as welcome to the typical Jewish hospitality… (see Acts 11:29: “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.”)
(Barnes: “They were from Parthia, and Media, and Arabia, and Rome, and Africa, etc. It is probable, also, that they now remained longer in Jerusalem than they had at first proposed; and it is not at all improbable that they would be denied now the usual hospitalities of the Jews, and excluded from their customary kindness, because they had embraced Jesus of Nazareth, who had been just put to death. In these circumstances, it was natural and proper that they should share their property while they remained together…”)
Barnes: “And laid them down … – That is, they committed the money received for their property to the disposal of the apostles, to distribute it as was necessary among the poor. This soon became a burdensome and inconvenient office, and they therefore appointed men who had special charge of it, Acts 6:1-2, etc…”
(Expositor’s: “As the community grew, the responsibilities of distribution increased, and to whom could the administration of the common fund be more fittingly committed than to the Apostles? The narrative indicates that this commital of trust was voluntary on the part of the Ecclesia, although it was marked by an act of reverence for the Apostles’ authority. The fact that Barnabas is expressly mentioned as laying the value of his field at the Apostles’ feet, may be an indication that the other members of the community were acting upon his suggestion; if so, it would be in accordance with what we know of his character and forethought, cf. Acts 9:27, Acts 11:22-24, Hort, Ecclesia, pp. 47, 48. There is no reason to reject this narrative as a mere repetition of Acts 2:44-45. The same spirit prevails in both accounts, but in the one case we have the immediate result of the Pentecostal gift, in the case before us we have the permanence and not only the vitality of the gift marked—the Christian community is now organised under Apostolic direction, and stress is laid upon the continuance of the “first love,” whilst the contrast is marked between the self-sacrifice of Barnabas and the greed of Ananias and Sapphira…”)
Some also rightly point out other passages in the New Testament that talk about more circumspect giving (2Thessalonians 3:10; 1Timothy 3:8), and so argue that eventually the church in Jerusalem comes to learn that “generous and general distribution was not the wisest method of accomplishing permanent good, and that here also a discriminate economy, was a necessary safeguard against abuse…” (Endicott)
(Pulpit commentary: “even at Jerusalem this bright vision of a paradise on earth was soon troubled by the earthly dissensions recorded in Acts 6; and the Christian community received a timely lesson that things good in themselves are not always practicable in an evil world, where sluggish virtues require the stimulants of bodily wants to draw them out and strengthen them, and where hypocrisy often claims the kindly offices which are due only to disciples indeed. Acts 2:44….”)
Others sum things up by saying that the precedent set here is not that we should strive for communal living per se – the disciples here were not in the same house but the same community – butrather that we should have the willingness to do whatever is necessary for the good of our Christian community, even as we also realize perfection in this area will not be obtained until heaven… (Cambridge Bible: “Each felt that he held his possessions only as a trust, and if occasion called for it, they were to be given up. Such love towards one another, Christ had foretold, should be a mark of His disciples (John 13:35). All those who have sketched a perfect society, as Plato in his Republic, and Sir Thos. More in his Utopia, have placed among their regulations this kind of community of goods which was established by the first Christians. In theory it is the perfection of a commonwealth, but there is need of perfection in the citizens before it can be realized. There can be no question that an expectation of Christ’s immediate return from heaven, acting along with the unity of thoughts and feeling, made these men willing to part with their possessions and goods, there being, as we shall see from the case of Ananias, no constraint upon them to do so….”)
MacLaren: “the distribution was not determined by the rule of equality, but by the ‘need’ of the recipients; and its result was not that all had share and share alike, but that ‘none lacked.’”
Cambridge Bible: “There were no doubt many who were not in need, and they of course lived on their own. The distribution was intended only for the needy, as widows, &c., and for those who could not otherwise support themselves while they took part, as many did, in the active propagation of the new faith. It may be, too, that some were deprived of the means of support because they had become Christians…”
In addition, as we see shown clearly in the book of Acts, none of this was compulsory,[xiii] it was voluntary, and God wants all of this to be voluntary and cheerful.
Finally, many commentators point out how there is no evidence that this kind of communal life happened anywhere else in the early church other than Jerusalem. (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible: “This was done by Jews, and by Jews only; who, when they embraced the Gospel of Christ, were informed that the destruction of their city, and nation, was at hand; and therefore they sold their estates before hand, and put them to this use; which was necessary to be done, both for the support of the Gospel in Judea, and for the carrying and spreading of it among the Gentiles: but is not to be drawn into a precedent, or an example in after times; nor is ever any such thing proposed to the Christian churches, or exhorted to by any of the apostles…..”)
Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary – Alford:
“That this was literally the case with the infant church at Jerusalem, is too plainly asserted in these passages to admit of a doubt. Some have supposed the expressions to indicate merely a partial community of goods: ‘non omnia vendiderunt, sed partem bonorum, quæ sine magno incommodo carere poterant,’ Wetstein; contrary to the express assertion of ch. 4:32. In order, however, rightly to understand this community, we may remark: (1) It is only found in the Church at Jerusalem. No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary, St. Paul speaks [constantly] of the rich and the poor, see 1Timothy 6:17; 1Corinthians 16:2 [Galatians 2:10; 2Corinthians 8:13-15; 2Corinthians 9:6, 2Corinthians 9:7]: also St. James 2:1-5; 4:13. And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may [partly] perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Romans 15:25, Romans 15:26; Rom_1 Cor. 16:1-3: 2Corinthians 8:9: also ch. 11:30; 24:17.
The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1. (2) This community of goods was not, even in Jerusalem, enforced by rule, as is evident from ch. 5:4 [12:12], but, originating in free-will, became perhaps an understood custom, still however in the power of any individual not to comply with. (3) It was not (as Grotius and Heinrichs thought) borrowed from the Essenes (see Jos. B. J. ii. 8. 3), with whom the Apostles, who certainly must have sanctioned this community, do not appear historically to have had any connexion. But (4) it is much more probable that it arose from a continuation, and application to the now increased number of disciples, of the community in which our Lord and His Apostles had lived (see John 12:6; John 13:29) before. (The substance of this note is derived from Meyer, in loc.)”
More Barnes: “As every man had need – This expression limits and fixes the meaning of what is said before. The passage does not mean that they sold all their possessions, or that they relinquished their title to all their property, but that they so far regarded all as common as to be willing to part with it if it was needful to supply the needs of the others. Hence, the property was laid at the disposal of the apostles, and they were desired to distribute it freely to meet the needs of the poor, Acts 4:34-35.”
“Religion does not contemplate, evidently, that people should break up all the arrangements in society, but it contemplates that those who have property should be ready and willing to part with it for the help of the poor and needy…”
[xiv] Now, we do note that in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul says “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…”
And so, there is a sense that Christians should see themselves as having a metaphorical debt of sorts. Their duty…responsibility, obligation before God is to love their neighbor!
And here, some might reason: if Christians have a duty to love their neighbor, that means it is not unreasonable for me to expect that I will receive love from other Christians.
And that is right. But note also, there is a poison pill here: This can easily become they owe me this. I deserve that…
And this can get ugly.
Even as, as we saw earlier, the exploitation that Luther talked about early on is also very ugly!
Again, and again the Bible speaks against bribes, false scales, and exploitation… not paying people enough and things like this – for example. Having a real lack of compassion.
One challenge here is that while sometimes it is not hard to determine what is good, and what is equitable… fair and reasonable…. other times it is much more difficult…
And yet, it is too easy for us to depend on that second part, where, more often, we should simply error on the side of generosity…
And here, the Bible does not just speak to the rich, but the poor also. We all have the duty, the responsibility, to care for our neighbor… the Bible talks more in terms of responsibilities than it does rights…
And not only this but the Bible, if we let it, will often shock and offend us in the way it works. For example, while slavery was not in Eden, God permitted slavery not only in the Old but the New Testament!
Therefore, when Christians freed slaves in the ancient church, they didn’t encourage any to rise up like a demanding Spartacus, but rather did so by buying slaves from their masters –yes, by compensating the slavemasters who had the power of life and death over them! – and then setting them free….
Was this the move of people who were weak in faith – or perhaps strong? And what about the Christians Paul wrote to who owned slaves? Don’t answer too quickly….
Does anyone’s neighbor, for example, have the “right” – should they think that before man and God they have the right – to all the things they feel they “need” which have not been granted to them due to “inequitable distribution”?
I submit that one cannot maintain that the Bible says “yes” — even if the world insist that to reject this is to embrace simply a different kind of slavery…
No. No – not at all….
Perhaps, instead, like in the Old Testament, God is calling someone to lend to them without interest, or even to take them on as their own long-term worker…[xiv]
No, it does us well to note that as regards these responsibilities, these go beyond “not doing harm” to one’s neighbor. God did not just rely on what we might desire in our heart to give in charity, but He also established, for example, gleaning laws, lending laws (vs. usury) and other laws protecting the weak and poor…
Some of these things we can do too… in line with passages like Romans 14 in particular, we can agree together that this or that thing based on this or that biblical principle it is a good thing to do… But stuff like this as regards the particulars can never really be a “thus saith the Lord”…. Even as, if things are imposed on us that we think are grossly unfair, we may or perhaps should still be willing to put up with quite a bit…
(I get being a Christian Democrat or a Social Democrat or Socialistic Christian (note what gets modified and what is primary here) but Christian Socialist or Democratic Socialist — I just don’t think the Bible would support that…given that socialism and communism are basically synonyms when one digs…)
We should think long and hard… be quite prayerful… about just what it means for Christians to be “salt and light…” for Christian yeast to work dependably, yet perhaps slowly, through the dough of this fallen world…
We remember that we are first and foremost those who appeal for mercy, not what we are owed… In fact, when the Bible speaks in terms of us “holding God accountable” – it is to His promises.
Promises of His to show us compassion and mercy, not promises to give us what we deserve…
And so we beg, we plead, we implore… Not demand.
Even as, yes, we also pray for Him to vindicate us and save us from those who treat us — and Him and His word — wrongly…
Even here though, this desire is to be tempered with Christian compassion… God does not want us to ever be full of resentment for the way that others have treated us, but to be full of the love of God
Ideally though, it would be nice if we didn’t have to harp on about our own individual “rights” so much….but if all of us could instead learn to be those who would advocate for others on their behalf….
As they, in turn, would advocate for us…
How willing are you to *help* in that way… even if it isn’t always seen as help?… On behalf of your neighbor….
To put it bluntly, in spite of everything else that I’ve talked about this morning, we also don’t give into false God’s that lead to demands, and then taking, to stealing… and then, inevitably, to desperation, and, I am guessing real guilt, that ultimately leads to what the state of California is doing…