Studies in the Book of Acts
Believers share possessions (4:32-35)
Luke next returns to a subject he introduced earlier (2:44-45) — the sharing of possessions among the believers. In the community of believers at Jerusalem “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (4:32). Earlier we were told that the believers “had everything in common” (2:44). They sold possessions and goods, giving “to anyone who had need” (2:45). In this snapshot of church life, Luke illustrates the nature and extent of the Jerusalem believers’ concern for one another.
For Luke as well as the early Christians, being filled with the Holy Spirit not only concerned proclaiming the Word of God but also sharing possessions with the needy because of believers’ oneness in Christ. [Richard Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 309.]
Luke illustrates the relationship of gospel-preaching to giving by inserting verse 33 into the middle of the discussion about the believers’ shared possessions. This verse speaks of the great power by which the apostles testified to the resurrection of Christ. It might appear to be misplaced, since it discusses a different topic, but it isn’t.
Luke intends to place the apostles into the middle of the community’s life, so that “authority” and “possessions” will again reinforce each other. The “great power” of their proclamation is matched by their place in the collection and distribution of the community goods. [Johnson, 86.]
Luke indicates that most wealthy believers had a remarkably selfless attitude toward their possessions. They regard their estates as being at the disposal of the community when necessary. No doubt even those of limited means gave what they could to assist less fortunate brothers and sisters. Because of this attitude, “there were no needy persons among” the church members at Jerusalem (4:34).
“From time to time” — when the occasion warranted it — affluent members “who owned land or houses” would sell pieces of property and give the money to the apostles (4:35). The apostles in turn “distributed to anyone who had need.” This donating of resources to a common church fund was voluntary. The practice, in various forms, was known among other Jews, especially the Essene sect. Josephus points out that the Essenes required their members to have all property in common — at least as an idealized principle. He wrote that, “It is a law among them [the Essenes], that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order — insomuch, that among them all there is no appearance of poverty or excess of riches, but every one’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions.” [Josephus, Wars 2:122.]
The Jerusalem believers are generous in sharing what they have with other members. However, their sharing is on a voluntary basis; it is not “Christian communism.” There is probably a cultural-religious reason why the Jerusalem community has a common fund to help the needy. At this early date, the believers seem to consider themselves as a righteous remnant within Israel. They hold firmly to their national religious practices and institutions, and they feel strongly about certain promises in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Torah they read, “There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).
Other Jewish religious groups, such as the Essenes, also thought of themselves in terms of a remnant. They, too, expressed their spiritual oneness by sharing their goods. The Jerusalem church is following cultural norms in sharing their goods on a voluntary basis.
Perhaps more importantly, the church knows of Jesus’ command that mutual love should be its distinctive characteristic (John 13:34-35, 15:12). Thus, the believers feel a deep responsibility to care for the physical needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. This continued to be a concern of the church (Galatians 2:9-10). The early church apparently expected Jesus to return soon. They probably thought that the gospel would be preached to all the Jews around the Roman world in a matter of years, perhaps only one or two decades. Then, “the end” would come. The disciples are therefore not concerned about their long-range needs. The kingdom of God is coming soon, and personal resources are to be used now instead of being stored up.
However, the ideal of generosity that the Jerusalem church attempts to reach in the sharing of goods is soon interrupted. God allows a persecution to come on this congregation that causes its members to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). And as it turns out, perhaps some members gave too much too quickly, resulting in an impoverished Jerusalem church. We get indications from Acts and Paul’s writings that the believers in Jerusalem were quite poor in later years. [Acts 11:27-30; 24:17; Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10.] This is not to belittle what they did, and in fact their selflessness was no doubt pleasing to God. The later poverty of the Jerusalem church became a blessing to people who were able to help them (2 Corinthians 9:11). True discipleship is sometimes very costly.
We should not picture all Jerusalem church members as placing all their property in a common fund. This congregation did not form a communal society that required all possessions to be put in a common pot. Donations were given on a voluntary basis. The church members lived in their own homes (2:46; 12:12), and thus would have their own household possessions. They were married and had families (1 Corinthians 9:5; Acts 5:1-11). The well-to-do among the Jerusalem church “from time to time” sold property (4:34). They did not simply sell everything and pool all the money. Rather, they sold it off piece by piece, as needed. They continued to live in their own houses but were willing to give to the community when needs arose.