A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 2:42-47. 3. The church’s life: the effect of Pentecost (continued).
b). It was a loving church.
*They devoted themselves… to the fellowship (koinonia). Koinonia * (from *koinos*, ‘common’) bears witness to the common life of the church in two senses. First, it expresses what we share together. This is God himself, for ‘our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn.1:3), and there is ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor. 13:14). Thus *koinonia* is a Trinitarian experience; it is our common share in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But secondly, *koinonia* also expresses what we share out together, what we give as well as what we receive. *Koinonia* is the word Paul used for the collection he was organising among the Greek churches (2 Cor.8:4; 9:13), and *koinonikos* is the Greek word for ‘generous’. It is to this that Luke is particularly referring here, because he goes on at once to describe the way in which these first Christians shared their possessions with one another: *all the believers were together and had everything in common (koina), Selling their possessions and goods* (probably meaning their real estate and their valuables respectively), *they gave to anyone as he had need* (44-45). These are disturbing verses. Do they mean that every Spirit-filled believer and community will follow their example literally?
A few miles east of Jerusalem the Essene leaders of the Qumran community were committed to the common ownership of property. According to its Damascus Rule all members of ‘the Covenant’, wherever they lived, were obliged to ‘succour the poor, the needy, and the stranger’, but the candidate for initiation into membership of the monastic community accepted a stricter discipline: ‘his property and earnings shall be handed over to the Bursar of the Congregation…; his property shall be merged…’. This arrangement, comments Geza Vermes, ‘bears a close resemblance to the custom adopted by the primitive Church of Jerusalem’.
So did the early Christians imitate them, and should we do so today? At different times in church history some have thought so and done so. And I do not doubt that Jesus still calls some of his disciples, as he did the rich young ruler, to a life of total, voluntary poverty. Yet neither Jesus nor his apostles forbade private property to all Christians. Even the sixteenth-century Anabaptists in the so called ‘radical reformation’, who wanted fellowship and brotherly love to be added to the Reformers’ definition of the church (in terms of word, sacraments and discipline), and who talked much about Acts 2 and 4 and ‘the community of goods’, recognized that this was not compulsory. The Hutterite Brethren in Moravia seem to have been the only exception, for they did make complete common ownership a condition of membership. But Menno Simons, he most influential leader of the movement, pointed out that the Jerusalem experiment was neither universal nor permanent, and wrote ‘we… have never taught nor practised community of goods’.
It is important to note that even in Jerusalem the sharing of property and possessions was voluntary. According to verse 46, *they broke bread in their homes*. So evidently many still had homes; not all had sold them. It is also noteworthy that the tense of both verbs in verse 45 is imperfect, which indicates that the selling and the giving were occasional, in response to particular needs, not once and for all. Further, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, to which we shall come in Acts 5, was not greed or materialism but deceit; it was not that they retained part of the proceeds of their sale, but that they had done so while pretending to give it all. Peter made this plain when he said to them: ‘Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?’ (5:4).
At the same time, although the selling and the sharing were and are voluntary, and every Christian has to make conscientious decisions before God in this matter, we are all called to generosity, especially toward the poor and needy. Already in the Old Testament there was a strong tradition of care for the poor, and the Israelites were to give a tenth of their produce to ‘the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow’ (Dt. 26:12). How can Spirit-filled believers possibly give less? The principle is stated twice in the Acts: *they gave to anyone as he had need* (45), and ‘there were no needy persons among them…the money… was distributed to anyone as he had need’ (4:34-35). As John was to write later, if we have material possessions and see a brother or sister in need, but do not share what we have with him or her, how can we claim that God’s love dwells in us? (1 Jn. 3:17). Christian fellowship is Christian caring, and Christian caring is Christian sharing. Chrysostom gave a beautiful description of it: ‘This was an angelic commonwealth, not to call anything of theirs their own. Forthwith the root of evils was cut out…. None reproached, none envied, none grudged; no pride, no contempt was there…. The poor man knew no shame, the rich no haughtiness’. So we must not evade the challenge of these verses. That we have hundreds of thousands of destitute brothers and sisters is a standing rebuke to us who are more affluent. It is part of the responsibility of Spirit-filled believers to alleviate need and abolish destitution in the new community of Jesus.
Tomorrow: Tomorrow: Acts 2:42-47 c). It was a worshipping church.
|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.|