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 2:42-47 – The Early Community of Believers

Clint Arnold points out in his Acts commentary that they community in Acts Two was characterized by four types of activities. Acts 2:42 says that the believers were devoted to these four activities.  The verb here (προσκαρτερέω) has the idea of being busy with something, or even “to persist” (BDAG).  The word appears twice in this paragraph, in verse 46 the community is daily worshiping in the temple and sharing meals together.

First, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (διδαχή). This instruction is for new converts who may not have heard Jesus teach.  The apostles are witnesses passing along the things which they have seen and heard.  It is entirely possible that the apostles had common set of instruction which they regularly passed along to new converts.  If this is the case, then there was a basic body of tradition within months of the death of Jesus which could be called the “teaching of the apostles.”

Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship (κοινωνία). Since this word has the connotation of sharing common, this is likely an allusion to the communal life described in the next verses (Fitzmyer, Acts, 269).  At the very least this includes alms and care for the poor.  I would suggest that many of those who needed assistance were Diaspora pilgrims who accepted the message of Jesus and remained in Jerusalem rather than to return home after Pentecost.

Third, they devoted themselves to “breaking of bread.” While this phrase can be used of sharing a meal together, it is likely that Luke is describing the community as celebrating some form of communion.  In Luke 21:19 the same words are used as Jesus takes bread and breaks it.  In Luke 24:35 it is used for the resurrected Jesus breaking bread as two disciples realized who he was.  I think that Jesus’ practice of common meals was the foundation for this practice — they all ate and drank together as one group.

Fourth, they devoted themselves to prayers. Since the Greek is plural this is plausibly a reference to daily prayers in the Temple.  It would not be unusual for Jewish men to go to the Temple several times a day to pray, so the community continues to worship at the Temple regularly.  In fact, Acts 2:46 indicates that the disciples met in both private homes and in the Temple.  This likely put them into contact with other observant Jews who would then be introduced to Jesus as Messiah.

Since a major interest in this series of studies is how to “apply” the book of Acts, it is critical to ask if  Luke is describing an ideal Christian community, or the specific community in Jerusalem.  While it is easy to see these four elements as generic components of Christian community everywhere, there are other elements in this paragraph which do not seem to be found elsewhere.  I will come back to this later, but notice for now that the community sold property, pooled resources, and distributed these funds to the poor.  Giving to the poor is a standard description of Christian community, but “living in common” only appears here in Acts 2.  There is nothing which makes me think the Antioch church was pooling resources, nor does Paul give any such instruction to his churches.

The fact that these earliest believers are devoted to these activities daily is also unique in the apostolic period.  There is no other group of believers who appear to have left their jobs to devote themselves to spiritual activity.  In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul seems to instruct the members of the church to not retire from daily life and be constantly devoted to ministry.  2 Thess 3:11-12 specifically tells people to go out and get jobs so that they are not a burden.

What is the reason Christians are quick to apply Acts 2:42 but not Acts 2:43 (miracles) or 2:44-45 (communal living)?  What is the difference between what is happening in Acts 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3?