Acts 4: 32 - 37
We are looking at the incredible dynamic that made the early church reach so many people so quickly. The first Christians had none of the advantages we consider necessary today: No big buildings, no choirs, no organs, pianos or praise bands. They had no pews, no Sunday School rooms and no parking lots. They weren’t supported by Christian TV or radio or Christian bookstores, not to speak of Christian schools and seminaries. Nevertheless they prospered—and in the early years the church grew explosively. Our text today offers a fascinating peek inside the day-to-day life of the early church. Let’s begin with a quick look at the text, using a simple outline as our guide.
1. The Principle v. 32a
This simple statement tells us that the believers shared a deep inner bond that joined them spiritually and emotionally. The Greek text says they were one “in heart and soul.”
2. The Proof v. 32b
Luke here moves from the invisible to the visible. In the early church if you had a need—and I had something that could meet that need—what was mine was yours. What was yours was mine—if I truly needed it.
3. The Power v. 33
They preached with power and God blessed their preaching, giving them favour with the people.
4. The Plan v. 34, 35
There are 3 groups in these 2 verses. There are the rich, defined as anyone who owned anything. There are the apostles, the designated spiritual leaders. There are the needy, defined as those too poor to own houses or lands. When the rich saw that certain believers had needs, they voluntarily sold some land or houses and brought the money and laid it at the feet of the apostles. The apostles then distributed it to the various needy believers in the congregation. This simple plan ensured that there would be no poverty in the church.
5. The Pattern v. 36, 37
Barnabas (later an associate of the Apostle Paul) is here introduced as a Levite who became a follower of Jesus. We know his conversion was genuine because he contributed from his own resources to meet the needs of poor Christians in the Jerusalem church.
That’s the outline and a brief commentary. As I ponder this passage one question keeps coming to my mind. What made these people act this way? It’s not natural to do what they did. Everything the world teaches us moves in the opposite direction. The very essence of sin is to go your own way and do your own thing. Nothing is more “natural” or “normal” than for us to say, “This is mine! Keep your hands off.”
Left to itself the heart always turns to selfishness. That’s why the advice to “follow your own heart” is often deadly. The Bible pictures the heart as deceitful, darkened and the source of evil within us. Apart from God’s grace, following your heart will lead you into all kinds of sin. Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that like sheep we have all gone stray from God and each of us has turned “to his own way.” Picture a flock of sheep scattered on the hillside, each one following his own path. If one sheep is hurt or cornered by a wolf, that’s too bad because it’s every sheep for himself.
Five Strong Verbs
There is nothing in us by nature that would cause us to do what the early church did. So why did they do it? Recall the rich young man who visited our Lord and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments. Being a serious young man, he asked, “Which ones?” Jesus listed several and included the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. The young man felt good about it because he had kept all those commandments from his youth. Is there anything else? Here is the answer Jesus gave - “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Look at the 5 verbs in this verse: Go … Sell … Give … Come … Follow. We’re quite happy with the last 2 and not at all sure what to do about the first 3. We’re not comfortable with connecting following Jesus with selling all our worldly goods and giving the money to the poor. It seems a little radical.
I suggest that Jesus is teaching us that there is an intimate connection between our possessions, the way we treat other people, and our relationship with God. That’s not a comfortable thought for many people because we prefer a compartmentalised faith where we can have our possessions, not worry about anyone else, and still be in good standing with the Lord. Jesus seems to be saying that it doesn’t work that way. Evidently the early Christians took the words of Jesus seriously and literally. That’s why they did what they did.
At the Apostles’ Feet
Luke twice uses an unusual expression to describe how the actual giving was done. v. 35 and again in v. 37 (and 5:2) we are told that the gifts were placed at “the apostles’ feet.” The picture that comes to mind seemed so unusual. For one thing, it implies a very public offering, which makes most of us uncomfortable. It suggests several things:
1. Confidence in leadership—They had complete confidence that the apostles would handle their money correctly.
2. Sensitivity to needs—The rich people made their offerings “from time to time” as specific needs arose.
3. Genuine sacrifice for others—They sold “lands or houses” and brought all the money to be given to the needy.
4. Personal involvement—They sold their property and then personally placed the money at the apostles’ feet.
While I agree that what happened in Jerusalem is not a binding pattern for all time, the underlying principle remains for us today. We don’t have to do what they did the way they did it, but I suggest that we do have to find our own ways to do what they did. The principle remains, the application varies from church to church and person to person.
Things to Think About
1. True unity is a central mark of God’s work in a local church.
Unity is a precious gift from God. In this world it is so unusual to find a group of people who truly love each other and have covenanted to stay together for the long haul. When you find that kind of love in the local church, you can know that it has come from God.
2. Unity is seen by the way we treat each other.
Francis Schaeffer - The Mark of a Christian - makes a persuasive argument in favour of visible love in the body of Christ. This is a “mark” that unbelievers can recognize even if they can’t understand our complicated doctrinal formulations. In the early church they didn’t just talk about unity, they practiced it at the deep level of sharing personal possessions.
3. The world responds when our message is accompanied by visible love.
It is precisely because there was such deep and visible unity that the apostles experienced great power in their preaching of the gospel. Preaching never takes place in a vacuum. When Christians love each other in a visible way, the world takes notice—and listens to our message.
4. Sharing with the needy is a primary sign of God’s grace at work.
This is a central truth of our text. The first Christians considered it a scandal that some of their number lived in poverty. They determined to do whatever it took to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters. This certainly fulfils the spirit of our Lord’s command to the Rich Young Ruler and his admonition to sell what you have and give the money to the poor.
The Message – v. 32: “No one said, ‘This is mine! You can’t have it.’” I realize that this is contrary to the normal way most people look at their possessions. We all like to have some things we consider ours and ours alone. Even the most generous among us struggle to some degree with this principle. How had such a great transformation in values taken place? The gospel of Jesus Christ made all the difference. When the gospel enters a community, that community is changed forever. When the gospel penetrates a local church, the people inside the church begin to look at what they have in a new light. They begin to share with each other—not out of law or duty or because someone told them to but because their hearts have responded to God’s grace.
Changed by the Gospel We Preach
Take a moment to consider 3 application statements:
1. We must preach the gospel because it alone has life-changing power—v. 33
This is always the place to begin because there is no substitute for the straightforward declaration of the truth. Romans 1:16 - the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. We must tell the world that the Son of God died on the cross and rose from the dead. We must announce what God has done and invite everyone to repent and believe the gospel. No other message has the power to transform the selfish heart into a channel of blessing for others.
2. We must pray to be changed by the gospel we preach—v. 32
This follows as night follows day. As we preach, we must pray that our words will penetrate our own selfishness and transform us. Until we are changed, we cannot expect our preaching to change anyone else. Therefore, let us take our own words to heart and remember that true sharing begins with those closest to us—at home, in the local church, with our friends and acquaintances, and with those in need whom the Lord places in our path.
3. We must demonstrate that change by the way we handle our possessions—v. 34 - 37
It is not easy to change the way we look at what we call our own. Remember the Rich Fool who wanted to build bigger buildings so he could store his grain. Little did he know that he would meet God that very night. Then who would get the things he stored up for himself? We are fools too if we think we own anything. We say, “This is my car, my home, these are my children, this is my wife, this is my business, and these are my investments"—as if we actually owned them. You don’t own anything. Never have, never will. Here’s the proof. When you die, someone else will get your car, your money, and your job. You don’t “own” your children or your spouse. Your life isn’t even your own.
How much better to look at all that you have as being loaned to you by God. You are at most the temporary custodian of all that you have. Even your life is a gift, one which he can recall at any moment. You come into this world with nothing, you leave with nothing, and in between you have temporary custody of a few things. Someday you will give an account of what you did with what you were given while you were alive.
As the Good News spread the pagans said of the early Christians, “Behold, how they love one another.” Such deep love must be based on something deeper than friendship. Any church can have unity if the people truly “agree on Jesus.” That’s what v. 32 means when it mentions “all the believers.” The phrase is literally “the whole multitude of believers.” The early church united around a shared commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else in the passage flows from that fact.