The life of the early Christians. 4:32-37
In our passage for study we are again given a thumbnail sketch of the "Spirit-filled" Christian community that existed in Jerusalem in the early years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. The church was united and caring. Members of the congregation even placed their private property at the disposal of the church for the care of the poor.
v32. "All the believers" (literally "the community of believers") were of a common mind and demonstrated this fact by putting their property, most likely their surplus property, at the disposal of fellow members.
v33. The apostles continued their preaching ministry. Again, the focus of the apostolic preaching is on the "resurrection of the Lord Jesus" rather than the "cross of Christ". The focus of the gospel is an empty tomb, such that in Christ's life we find life. God's favor ("grace") continues to support the ministry of the apostles. The power of the message, at times expressed visibly in miraculous signs, is probably what is meant by "much grace was upon them."
v34-35. The free-will offerings of community members, gained by the sale of excess assets, was given to the apostles to distribute to church members in need. The distribution was later delegated to "the seven" - the deacons, cf. chapter 6. This allowed the apostles to get on with their preaching ministry. It is often suggested that the poverty of the Jerusalem church, mentioned by Paul in his epistles, is a direct result of the sale of income-earning assets. The church was especially in trouble during the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28. The sale of income-earning assets and the use of capital for recurrent expenditure, is always an unwise use of resources. Yet, this was a church driven by a fervent belief in the coming one and so immediate needs transcended any need to prepare for a materially secure future. As it turned out, God's judgement upon Jerusalem, with the sacking of the city in 70AD by the Romans, devastated property assets in and around the city.
v36-37. Joseph's special name was Barnabas, son of encouragement. He was a Cypriote Jew with relatives and land in Jerusalem. As a Levite he actually shouldn't have owned any land, but by this time the rule was ignored. Barnabas is given as an example of someone who acts with communal generosity.
Communalism is a very interesting social system. It takes on various forms, but generally it involves the common ownership, or at least use of, personal assets. All share the common resources of the group or society. Many people have tried to form communal societies, but other than the Christian ones, most fail within a generation. Christian societies often survive for many generations, although in the end they tend to fail. Human sinfulness (selfishness) has its way.
Christian communities often emerge out of a strong eschatological hope. There is a sense where the secular society is falling apart and believers, sensing that the end is near, ban together to stand before the dark days ahead. This feeling was certainly driving the Jerusalem church. The early believers, including Paul himself, initially believed that the second coming of Christ would be in the lifetime of the apostles and would be accompanied by painful tribulations.
It is quiet possible that the Jerusalem church was not actually communal in the sense of communist. They were certainly sharing resources for the common good and particularly for the work of the gospel, but they might not have actually held everything in common. The evidence points to the continued ownership of homes and businesses by individual members. The sale and distribution of surplus assets is most likely what is described in both Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. As Peter said to Ananias "Didn't it (the land) belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?" Acts 5:4. Common ownership was not a community rule. Members sold and gave as they willed. Barnabas is presented as a notable example of generosity rather than the norm. So what we are presented within this passage is an example of resource sharing driven to a high level by the immediacy of Christ's return.
The value of resource sharing lies in its capacity to train us in righteousness. In a Christian community where personal property becomes common property such that even space is common, the believer is pushed to rest firmly on "faith, hope and love." It is no easy task loving someone we don't like, but still someone we have to play, pray and work with. In Christ, our love is perfect, but then life can serve to teach us how to love, how to be what we already are. So, resource sharing in community can aid the shaping of righteousness in a believer's life.
Most believers don't seek community at the level of commune, but church is still community, and if we extend ourselves in the sharing of our time, talent and tinkle for the upbuilding of our fellowship and outreach to the world, we will be further prepared for eternity.
Discuss the level of resource sharing practiced by the Jerusalem church. Compare it with your own church, and consider if resource sharing is a practical option for your church. Consider the practical example of a shared lawn-mower - list the pros and cons.
Print-friendly: Sermon Notes. and Technical Notes
Index of studies: Resource library
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons