A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 4:32-37. The believers enjoy a common life (continued).
Secondly, their radical attitude led to sacrificial action, namely that *from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them*, and then put the sale money *at the apostles’ feet*, so that they might distribute it (34b-35). The same actions of selling and distributing are referred to in 2:45. In both cases the selling was voluntary and sporadic (*from time to time*), as the need for ready cash arose.
Thirdly, both the radical attitude and the practical action were based on the equitable principle that distribution was proportionate to genuine need. The two accounts use the identical words *kathoti an tis chreian eixen*, meaning ‘according as anyone had need’ (35b, cf.2:45). Only in the second description, however, does Luke state the consequence of the principled distribution of relief, namely *there were no needy persons among them* (34a).
Calvin wrote in his commentary:
We must have hearts that are harder than iron if we are not moved by the reading of this narrative. In those days the believers gave abundantly of what was their own; we in our day are content not just jealously to retain what we possess, but callously to rob others… They sold their own possessions in those days; in our day it is the lust to purchase that reigns supreme. At that time love made each man’s own possession common property for those in need; in our day such is the inhumanity of many, that they begrudge to the poor a common dwelling upon earth, the common use of water, air and sky.
In seeking to evaluate the so-called ‘Jerusalem experiment’, we shall be wise to avoid extreme positions. We have no liberty to dismiss it as a rash and foolish mistake, motivated by the false expectation of an imminent Parousia and causing the poverty which Paul had later to remedy by his collection from the Greek churches. Luke gives no hint of these things. Nor can we say, however, that the Jerusalem church, being filled with the Spirit, laid down an obligatory model – a kind of primitive Christian ‘communism’ – which God wants all Spirit-filled communities to copy. The fact that the selling and giving were voluntary is enough to dispose of this. What we should surely do, instead, is to note and seek to imitate the care of the needy and the sacrificial generosity which the Holy Spirit created. Of course many societies have dreamed of the ending of poverty. The Greeks, for example, looked back to a golden age in which all property was public, and Pythagoras is said to have practised it with his disciples, and to have coined the epigram ‘among friends everything is common (*koina*). Plato later incorporated this ideal in his vision of a utopian republic. Then Josephus wrote that the Essenes, whom we know as the Qumran community, ‘live the same kind of life as do those whom the Greeks call Pythagoreans’. Yet the inspiration for the common life and love of the Jerusalem church will have come neither from Pythagoras, nor from Plato, nor from the Essenes, but from the Old Testament, as illumined by Jesus. For the law was quite clear on the matter: ‘there should be no poor among you’ (Dt.15:4). In addition, Luke stressed Jesus’ teaching that the gospel of the kingdom was good news for the poor. (eg. Lk.4:18;6:20; 7:22). But how could it be so unless it offered them justice as well as salvation, the abolition of their poverty as well as the remission of their sins?
Having portrayed the solidarity of love enjoyed by the Jerusalem church, Luke supplies his readers with two contrasting examples: Barnabas whose generosity and openness fulfilled the ideal (4:36-37) and Ananias and Sapphira whose greed and hypocrisy contradicted it (5:1ff). ‘Barnabas’ (Son of Encouragement) was actually the nickname which the apostles gave, on account of his helpfulness, to *Joseph, a levite from Cyprus* (36). He *sold a field he owned*, presumably in Cyprus, and laid the money *at the apostles’ feet* (37). It was an act of liberality fully in keeping with his character as it later emerges in the Acts narrative. Luke deliberately introduces him here.
Tomorrow: Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira are punished for their hypocrisy.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|