Acts 4:32-37 – Applying Acts (Part 3)

In Acts 4:32-37 we have a 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 who needs 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.  Is this the right way to approach the text?  I think the economic reading of the text might obscure the real point.

There is no question that the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well.  Arnold (Acts, 34) points out that in Judea there was a famine which threatened the Christians who remained in Jerusalem.  In Rome some Christians had their property seized, including Aquila and Priscilla.  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).  There were Christians in Rome who sold themselves into slavery so that they could provide for the needs of the poor in the church.

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 even 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.  While I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity, I find the sort of “health and wealth” gospel which infests the American church like a disease a dangerous and idolatrous idea.

The community described in Acts 4:32-37 is a new, idealized Israel.   That the eschatological community should be characterized by unity of mind is no surprise, Jer 32:39 describes unity as a distinguishing characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the New Covenant.  It is possible that the unity of “one mind” is a subtle allusion to 1 Chron 12:38-39, a text which describes the beginning of the Davidic kingdom.  In this passage the who nation is of “one mind” to make David king, as demonstrated in their eating and drinking together for three days with David.  The time is also described as a period of “joy in Israel.”  The initial coronation of David as king over all Israel includes Jews  from “far away,” celebration through meals, and great joy.

What concerns me here is drawing ethical implications from this text.  Luke is not presenting the Jerusalem community as an ideal which must be followed, but rather as a community which was uniquely powered by the Holy Spirit. What would our churches look like if they were characterized by unity such as this?  What matters is not a collective community garden or sharing of money with poorer members, but that all members of the community have the same interests and goals; they are wholeheartedly yielded to the Holy Spirit.

That sort of unity would revolutionize the church.

Acts 4 – Peter Speaks to the High Priest

In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priest and some of his associates. In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time.  He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship.

Peter and John DoreIn both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible.  Both sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom.  As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people.” (Acts, 189).

Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit as he addressed the meeting. That Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit is an indication that Luke sees this speech in the tradition of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  Luke is presenting Peter as giving a prophetic speech like Isaiah or Jeremiah, directly to the leadership of the Jewish people, calling even the High Priest to repent of the sin of killing the Messiah.

The words which follow are therefore a prophetic speech of condemnation, which amazes the listeners.  But it is not Peter’s skills as an orator which is important, but that the words come through the Holy Spirit.   In fact, Luke uses this phrase in a number of places in his gospel and in Acts before a prophetic speech.*  In each case, the target of the speech is Jewish; 9:17 refers to Paul receiving the Spirit, 11:24 refers to Barnabas as a man “full of the Spirit.”

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 last line of his defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  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.

There 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!

*See Luke 1:15, 1:41, 1:67; 4:1, Acts 2:4, 4:31, 6:3-5, 7:55, 9:17, 11:24, and 13:9.