Acts 4:32-5:16 – A Christian Community

Acts 4:32-5:16 is a vivid description of the early community of believers in Jerusalem. A text such as this provides a good opportunity to stop and think about how we ought to apply the book of Acts today.

Sometimes this group is described as living as communists since they “live in common” and seem to have re-distributed wealth.  Many traditional dispensationalists have therefore concluded that the future Kingdom will be some sort of socialist paradise with no private property, etc.  Try as I might, I cannot find this elsewhere in scripture nor am I communist so that I need to find biblical support for by economic theory!  Virtually everyone who treats this text finds some way to avoid the “living in common” aspect of Acts 4.

There is no call to sell our possessions and live “in common.”  The application is therefore rather general.  But people like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) would argue (passionately) that the earliest community of believers were putting into practice the ethics of Jesus (including economic ethics) by living as simply as possible. They did not build enormous churches and expensive structures – they simply met the needs of people. This is all true, of course, and that early community is important for how we might “do church” in a contemporary context. This earliest community is also very similar to the ideal Christian community Peter outlines in 1 Peter 3:8-12.

CommuneFrequently this text is invoked as a model for the church to follow today, with varying degrees of specific application.  For example, Allison A. Trites includes this text in her article on church growth (“Church Growth in the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 [1988]).  The reason the apostolic church grew was because the church cared for the needs of the poor and treated hypocrisy as a serious offense (5:1-11).  The point is well made – the growing church cares about the needs of people as well as the preaching of the gospel.  But does this point really come from Acts 4:32-35?

There is no question the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well. Even in the days of Justin Martyr Christians were interested in sharing possessions for the common good:  “We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have to a common stock, and communicate to every one in need” (Apology 1.14:2-3).

The big question is therefore: How do we apply the descriptions of the earliest Christian communities to the present Christian church? Or perhaps, should we try to apply these things to our church? Perhaps there is more going on here than Luke giving us a model for all churches at all times. I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity and I am by no means interested in any kind of “health and wealth” gospel – but I am also concerned with drawing ethical implications from this text.

Logos Bible Software Upgrade Sale Ends Soon

In case you have not seen the announcements, Logos Bible Software released a major upgrade at the end of last year. I did a “first look” review of Logos 8 here. There are plenty of new features to justify an upgrade and the software runs much more efficiently than the previous version. Everything runs faster than Logos 7 so the upgrade is well worth getting.

If you upgrade to Logos 8, you can save 25% on any upgrades to Logos 8 and pick five free books. Follow the link and used the code READINGACTS8 and save a little money on the upgrade. But this upgrader discount ends on February 7, 2019. If you do not already have Logos, here is a loophole in the sale. Get Logos 7 Fundamentals for $59 then upgrade to a Logos 8 base package and use the code to save 25%.

As always, be sure to check out the Logos Free Book of the Month. They give away a new book every month and usually have promotional pricing on one or two others from the same publisher. This is a great way to build up your library.

Acts 4:36-27 – Who was Barnabas?

Luke gives an ideal example of a member of the early Christian community in Jerusalem: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36). Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. The introduction of Barnabas at this point in the book is a typical Lukan literary style. He often introduces a character who will become significant later in the story (Saul in 8:1, John Mark and James, Jesus’ brother in chapter 12).

BarnabasJoseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement” although this derivation is not particular obvious. The phrase “son of ” can mean “characterized by, such as calling James and John “sons of thunder.” The name may be related to Bar-nabi, which would mean “son of a prophet.”

While this seems the most likely explanation for the name, it is not exactly what Luke says the name means. The role of the prophet is not limited to future-telling or condemnation of sin. For example, the second half of Isaiah has been rightly described as a “book of comfort” or “consolation.” Perhaps Barnabas had a personality which could speak the truth with strength and clarity, but in such a way as to bring comfort and encouragement to people as well.

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus.

Luke calls him a Levite. Not all Levites were priests, but typically they were wealthy and well educated regardless of their role in the Temple. Levites could be anything from priests to doorkeepers in the Temple, but they also might be scribes or teachers of the Law. We are not told that Barnabas actually functioned as a Levite in the Temple, he may have simply been from a Levitical family. On the other hand, it is possible that he had worked in the Temple and was quite “traditional” within the spectrum of Second Temple Period Judaism. What matters here is that Barnabas was from the Diaspora, but had deep roots in Jerusalem and perhaps the Temple.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. We are not told what the property is, although he may have owned some property around Jerusalem which was a source of income for his family while he worked in the Temple.

I think that it is important to observe here that Jews living living outside of Judea are not automatically “more liberal” on matters of Law. In fact, it seems to me that the violent resistance to the preaching of the Gospel in Acts comes first from Diaspora Jews, not the Aramaic-speaking Jews. That Barnabas has two Hebrew names, hast the title of Levite, and had some property in Jerusalem implies that he was less Hellenized and more traditional with respect to his religion.

E. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 1:788-790 for detailed information on Barnabas.

Acts 4:23-31 – Response to Suffering

The reaction of the followers of Jesus to Peter and John’s arrest is raise their voices together in praise and prayer (Acts 4:24). This runs counter to what the council intende . The disciples of Jesus ought to have been filled with remorse after they were shown their so-called gospel blasphemy. They ought to have humbly submitted to their elders and ceased their preaching of Jesus as the resurrected messiah.

On the contrary, they rejoice because they have been counted worthy to suffer persecution in a similar way to what Jesus faced. Opposition to Jesus’ teaching began with the Pharisees and Sadducees and Jesus was told he was not doing miracles by the power of God. Jesus was also subjected to traps to get him to state a false teaching publicly. Peter and JohnIn short, this resistance to the apostolic teaching is exactly the same as Jesus faced. The rejection of the teaching is far more grave, however, since the people acted in ignorance when they killed Jesus (Acts 3:17). But ignorance is no longer an excuse: the rejection of the Holy Spirit will result in a most dire judgment.

The disciples see this persecution as the fulfillment of Scripture, specifically Psalm 2. This Psalm is cited as proof that the apostolic mission is having the intended effect. The “nations” in the original Psalm are the gentiles, or generically the “enemies of God.” The gentiles did plot against Jesus and did put him to death, but now Peter is applying that same thinking to the actions of the High Priest. Peter is calling the High Priest and his inner circle “gentiles.” Arnold points out when Peter prays that God “stretch out his hand” he is alluding the events of the Exodus – when God brought his people out of Egypt with miracles and great signs and wonders (Arnold, Acts, 34). I think Peter is consciously connecting the Exodus, the great salvation event of the Hebrew Bible to the events of Pentecost – the new age is dawning and it will be like a new Exodus.

The Jewish resistance to the Holy Spirit is therefore interpreted here as the same thing as Gentile resistance to the people of God in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps most significant is that this resistance will be  just as futile ans Egypt’s resistance to God in the first Exodus.

As they prayed, the meeting was shaken and they once again are filled with the Holy Spirit and they all spoke the word of God boldly. Just as Peter was filled with the Spirit and spoke boldly before the High Priest, now the whole community speaks boldly. The council commanded silence, but the community reacts by boldly witnessing concerning the truth concerning Jesus.

This is the first example of an arrest turning into a victory for the Jesus community (there are several more to come in the book of Acts). In Acts, no earthly power can hinder the power of the Holy Spirit and the witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus. The attitude of the earliest Jesus-followers seems the opposite of contemporary Christianity, especially in its American form. Christians are quite quick to decry some minor resistance to Christian practice as a “war” on the faith. Yet here in Acts, serious attacks (and physical suffering) are welcomed as signs the Gospel is effective and suffering results in a clear witness to the Gospel. How can we return to this attitude found among the earliest followers of Jesus?

Acts 4:12 – No Other Name

When he is giving testimony in Acts 4, Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not. If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God. The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God. If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem: Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!

The problem for the High Priest is obvious.  If Peter healed the man “in the name of Jesus” that means that Jesus was, at the very least, an innocent man and God is now doing miracles “in the name of Jesus.”  If Jesus was innocent, then the High Priest is guilty of killing an innocent man. If he was Messiah and actually raised to the right hand of God, then the messianic age has begun and the High Priest finds himself  “on the outside.”

The last line of Peter’s defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ. There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life. If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.

Jesus TattooThere is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism. The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation. If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.

Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple. Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!

I think this is what bothers me about popular Christianity and the rather flippant use of the “Name of Jesus.”  We have turned praying in the “name of Jesus” into code words for “I am done praying now, look up.”  People claim all sorts of goofy things in the “name of Jesus” without giving much thought at all to what that means.  It does not help to write “Jesus” out in Hebrew and tattoo it on your ankle.  This sort of thing diminishes what the name meant when Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved.”

Jesus is not a magic word we use to invoke divine power, it represents the power of God for salvation.

Acts 4 – A Dangerous Gospel

There are a number of similarities between events on Acts 2 and 3. Apparently Peter and John regularly went up to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah. The gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus would have been of interest to some of the Jews who were also at the Temple worship. Prior to both Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3 God did a miracle to demonstrate the messianic age has begun. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man are both based on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. Peter clearly declares Jesus was the messiah and he was crucified in ignorance. But this ignorance will no longer be overlooked and judgment is coming. After both sermons thousands of people believe Jesus is the messiah and he is returning soon to establish his kingdom.

annas-caiaphasAfter healing the lame man and preaching to another large crowd, the Temple authorities arrest Peter and John (Acts 4). As Ben Witherington comments, Acts 4 is the “beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people” (Acts, 189). For the next several chapters there is increasing tension and persecution between the ministries of the twelve Apostles and the seven deacons, culminating in the execution of Stephen at the end of chapter 7. Preaching the Gospel, as it turns out, is a very dangerous thing to do!

Peter and John are brought before Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 22:54, cf., John 11:49). The group which is gathered includes the elders and teachers of the Law, including the high priest Annas, and men from his family, Caiaphas, John and Alexander.

There is a historical problem here. Annas was high priest from A.D. 6-15, his son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18-36.  There are several explanations for this.  One possibility is that Luke lists Annas as the high priest since he is the real power behind Caiaphas (this is at least the view of John 18:13, since Jesus is brought to Annas before he is brought to Caiaphas, the actual high priest).  Caiaphas’s name has been found on a rather ornate ossuary (which does not appear to be a forgery, although Craig Evans doubts the name is the biblical Caiaphas, see Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and the Ossuaries,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13 [2003]: 39).

Since whole Sanhedrin could have been as many as seventy men, it is unlikely the whole council met to question Peter. This is probably the high priest and his closest advisers and the questioning is intended to find out who authorized the apostles to declare publicly Jesus was the messiah (4:7). For Caiaphas and the others who were involved in Jesus’ execution, the claim God raised Jesus from the dead is more than just awkward, it is an attack on them as legitimate authority. They found Jesus guilty and killed him; God found him innocent and raised him from the dead.  Since Caiaphas and his advisers are Sadducees, they reject the possibility Jesus was the Messiah and especially that God raised him from the dead.

As Craig Keener points out, preaching in the Temple was not illegal, nor was healing a lame man or drawing a large crowd (2:1135). But it was extremely dangerous to declare a man who was executed as a false messiah was in fact the God’s messiah. It is a direct attack on the Temple aristocracy who killed Jesus. If the disciples continue to preach this message to the crowds, they will face increasing persecution from the aristocratic priesthood in Jerusalem.

Why do the disciples remain in Jerusalem? Could they not simply return to Galilee and preach the same gospel in a safer place? Why does Peter insist on emphasizing the participation of his audience in the death of Jesus? He seems to be attacking the Temple aristocracy directly, why does Peter not find a less-offensive way of preaching the Gospel?

Acts 3:20 – “The Times of Refreshing”

Water and FireIn a previous post I stated that the “times of refreshing” was a Second Temple Period way of describing the eschatological kingdom, or the messianic age. Many of the Jews assembled in the Temple courts would have understood Peter’s words in Acts 3:20 as referring to the “age to come” when God restores creation to its original state. Deliverance of creation was something that at least some Jews expected at the time of the messianic age. This deliverance is described as a restoration of creation to something like Eden, a place of prosperity and peace.

1 Enoch 5:7 says that for the elect, the eschatological age will be “light, joy, and peace, and they shall inherit the earth.” Recall that Jesus said that the “meek will inherit the earth” in Matt 5:5. In 25:6, the elect will be presented the “And the elect will be presented with its fruit for life” and they will “live long lives on the earth.” In 45:5 indicates that God will “transform the earth and make it a blessing ,and cause my Elect One (messiah) to dwell in her.” Alluding to Ps 114, 1 Enoch 51:4 says that “in those days, mountains shall dance like rams; and the hills shall leap like kids satiated with milk. And the faces of all the angels in heaven shall glow with joy, because on that day the Elect One has arisen.”

Fourth Ezra, a Jewish apocalypse written after 90 A.D., has a number of references to the coming eschatological age as a refreshment of creation and a time of rest. In 4 Ezra 7:75 “we shall be kept in rest until those times come when you will renew the creation,” and in 11:46 the writer looks forward to the coming judgement “so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved.” In 13:26-29, the messiah is described as the one “whom the Most High has been keeping for many ages, who will himself deliver his creation; and he will direct those who are left.”

Perhaps 2 Baruch 73-74 is the most similar to the sorts of things we read in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. In 2 Baruch 73:1, after the messiah “has sat down in eternal peace on the throne of the kingdom” then “joy will be revealed and rest will appear.” Just as Acts has described Jesus as ascending to heaven and sitting on the right hand of the Father, 2 Baruch describes the coming age as a time when a messianic figure provides eternal peace from a heavenly throne.

There are more texts which could supplement this list (Jubilees 23:29; T.Levi 18:4; and T.Jud 24:1), but these serve to indicate that the idea of a messianic kingdom as a “time of refreshing” was well known in the first century.

Two thoughts come to mind from reading this data.  First, is this sort of kingdom what  people thought  that Peter was talking about? I see some evidence in Acts that the first community was looking for an imminent return of the Messiah, but how long did that belief persist?

A related second question concerns the non-arrival of the kingdom.  Why if this is what “times of refreshing” meant to the biblically literate crowds, why was there no renewal of creation or return of the Exiles? Is there a disconnection from Jewish expectations here?