“Do you believe the Bible is true?” I ask my first year seminary students.
“Yes,” they reply.
“Is it our guide to living out the faith?”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
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. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.
I close my Bible, and ask one more question. “Then why don’t you live like this today?” Hands shoot up.
“Because that was a onetime event,” explains one eager student.
“That was an exceptional time, when the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the church,” says another.
Another student chimes in: “Luke’s account only describes how the early Christians lived. This doesn’t mean Acts is prescribing how all Christians are to live.”
Someone else interjects, “The enthusiasm of the first believers went way overboard, and they paid for it later on. Besides, if sharing everything in common was how Jesus meant us to live he would have taught us about it himself.”
I pause, and then proceed. “Do you follow the Apostles’ teachings?”
“Yes, yes,” they reply.
“Do you devote yourselves to prayer?” “Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?” “And what about praising God together?” They all agreed that these were important. “Then why,” I asked, “don’t you share everything together?” Silence.
Indeed. Why don’t we as Christ’s followers live more like the first Christians and share all we have in common? Why do we hold onto our possessions when Jesus gave us the power to be free of them?
Luke’s account doesn’t mince words. He describes straightforwardly what the Spirit-filled church was like in Jerusalem. That church was unabashedly communal. Whatever property it had was certainly not private.
What kind of communalism did the first Christians actually practice? Was all private property sold and the proceeds placed into one communal pot for distribution? Was the church’s communalism required? Voluntary? Normative? Exceptional? Three features stand out among the first Christians: (1) They were devoted to one another; (2) They shared all things in common; and (3) There were no needy persons among them.
Devotion to One Another. Most of the disciples at the beginning of Acts were pilgrims who came from all over the Roman empire. At festival times, such as Pentecost, they thus relied on the hospitality of those sympathetic to them. Thousands were in Jerusalem. But something radical happened. Those who responded to Peter’s message were filled with the Spirit. They consequently devoted themselves (poskartereo – continually held fast to) to a new found fellowship. These pilgrims not only decided to extend their pilgrimage indefinitely, but committed themselves wholeheartedly to each other. “Every day they continued to meet together” (Acts 2:46). “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).
This fellowship was not just an experience of camaraderie and mutual feeling (see my earlier post, “Bad Language – Church Style”), but a concrete social reality of sharing and caring for one another in very practical, material ways. The believers met together and lived together. They were a fellowship. Their commitment to one another was neither casual nor temporary. Even those converts who were out of town (Acts 2:14) were committed. Their devotion was no less total, as their homes would be permanently altered into hospices.
All Things in Common. Luke stresses that, “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). Both Aristotle and Cicero held that the ideal community was to put one’s property at the disposal of one’s friends. Some Jewish groups, like the one that lived at Qumran, or the Essenes, followed the Pythagorean model and turned all their possessions over to the community so they could all withdraw from society into a new, eschatological community awaiting God’s future. Here the early church, without withdrawing from the world, fulfilled not only the Greek ideal of true friendship but the Deuteronomic vision of covenant community: “What is mine is yours.”
Among the first believers no one regarded his property as being under his own private control. Possessions were at the disposal of the community as a whole. The reference to thefeet of the apostles (Acts 4:37; 5:2; cf. 11:30) actually suggests some kind of transfer expressed in formal language. Sharing was voluntary, but it was also a demonstrable response of submission to the spirit and authority of Christ in the church. Such sharing was not a legal transaction, but it was concrete nonetheless. The first Christians were “one in heart and mind” and thus any and every thought of possessiveness vanished.
Interestingly, Luke’s summaries are dominated by highly marked imperfect tense verbs. This indicates habitual or repeated action. There existed ongoing acts of charity as different needs arose. Since there was no way to procure food in Jerusalem except by means of money, those with means liquidated real estate or other assets that were not being used and then contributed the proceeds to the common fund – a fund that we know was also used to support widows (and probably others) lacking a means of support (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:16). Sharing, as with prayer and the breaking of bread, was not an occasional occurrence but a day-to-day experience.
Barnabas’ example (Acts 4:36–37) of selling land used for agriculture is thus a model. Yes, he legally “owned” property, but he did not own it privately. Ananias and Sapphira’s example (Acts 5), was the exact antithesis of Barnabas’. Their sin could be compared to Achan’s mentioned in Joshua 7 (the same word, “take back,” is used). Ananias and Sapphira embezzled (nosphizo) the community’s property. They sold land with the appearance of giving the proceeds to the church. They held back what was really no longer theirs. Their failure was not just that they lied, but that they “tested the spirit of the Lord.”
Peter does not tell Ananias that he could have come into the Christian community without renouncing the private ownership of his goods. How could he, when Luke wrote that “not a single one said anything was his own” (Acts 4:32) and that “whoever possessed fields or houses sold them,” and that “all the faithful together had everything in common” (Acts 2:44), and so on? Didn’t Jesus say to the crowds, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Ananias’ sin was that he pretended be a Christian via a counterfeit renunciation. This is why his sin was dealt with so severely. The entire thrust of both Luke and Acts is that those who follow Jesus freely give up everything.
Elimination of Poverty. In Acts 4:32 it says that, “there were no needy persons among them.” The first church was marked by a radical sharing of love born of the Spirit that left no need unmet. No one was left in a state of destitution. The church obviously took Deuteronomy 15:4very seriously: “There should be no poor among you.” And Luke notes that there was great grace upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them.
The economic life of the early church was marked less by how needs were met than by the fact that they were met (Acts 4:35, 37; 6:1; 20:33–35; 24:17; Gal. 2:10). What Luke describes is nothing less than the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that those who leave everything for his sake will not fail to receive a hundred times as much (Mark 10:29–31). Radical renunciation and complete dependence upon God (e.g. Luke 5:11; 14:33; 18:22) leads to sharing everything. Everyone has a share in everything because everyone gives up everything.
Luke’s account of the life of the early church describes what Christ’s Spirit does on earth when people respond in repentance to the gospel. The Spirit so filled their lives that nothing, including possessions, got in the way of showing love one for another. They belonged to one Lord, and thus surrendered everything! The question to us is simple: Why don’t we?