The Continuing Unity of the Church Part 2 of 3
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
This particular group of believers had not only believed for the salvation of the soul, they had submitted to the Lordship of Jesus, and therefore they were of one heart, and motivated by one great impulse. One love mastered them, having complete control over each and every heart. They had one outlook, one inward consciousness, one inspirational motive. They tried to please God, instead of man, by all they said and did, and they sought to make Jesus Lord of their lives. These early Christians were also unselfish—and that is the principle that was discernible in their activity: “Neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own.” The sad condition existing today is that most people are so selfish and self-centered that they strive to get all they can, and they keep all they get! They share little or nothing with their fellowman. Admittedly there are some unselfish people in the world today, but unfortunately, they are few and far between.
In this group of believers no main claimed his possessions as his own because no man followed that line of thought. These people were so completely yielded to the Lord that every trace of selfishness was removed. The new heart and divine life within had put an end to thinking of self. A corporate consciousness was prevalent in their hearts and minds, they truly “had all things common.”
In 1 Corinthians 12.26 it says concerning the Church, “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.” In the average church today, if one of the members suffers—whether it is physically or financially, enduring a long period of illness, losing home or business, experiencing some personal tragedy—the other members discuss that individual’s misfortune, they extend their sympathy, they may even take up an offering, or sponsor a fundraising event to provide food, clothing, or other commodities to help that one in need; but this is not the idea presented by the early believers.
They were entirely yielded to the Lordship of Jesus, therefore they were one. They lived with the deep conviction of the spiritual over the material. They believed the words of Jesus in Matthew 16.26: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” They also believed the principle contained in 1 John 3.17: “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” God gave Jesus so that those who suffered might have this glorious salvation with all the good gifts that go along with it. These early Christians were so completely mastered by the spiritual power within them that they clung lightly to the things of this world. It has been said that the more lightly we cling to the things of this world the firmer our grip is on God and eternal things. Material things were secondary to these believers; spiritual attainment was the dominating force in their lives. They lived as though the possessed nothing—but in reality, they possessed ALL things!
Opinions about this section vary among expositors and teachers. There are those who say that what happened there was a mistake—the first apostolic mistake. There are those who believe it was divinely ordered, and the inevitable outcome of the Pentecostal outpouring. Those who are of the opinion that this was a great mistake made by the early church do so for certain reasons which we will briefly review. They assert, first of all, that the action of the early disciples was due to their expectation of a speedy return of Jesus Christ, that he would personally and actually return during their lifetime and therefore they reasoned that there was no reason for them to retain earthly goods. This action, the relinquishing of their earthly possessions was the cause of the subsequent poverty of the Church in Jerusalem, and it made necessary the collections that were taken from among the Greek cities and sent to Jerusalem. The notion that the actions of these Christians were a mistake is supported by the resulting experiences of Ananias and Sapphira, and of the complaining of the Hellenists because some of their widows were neglected in the distribution.
33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
The spirituality of these early Christians gave power to their preaching and witnessing of the message of the resurrection of Christ. Their preaching and witnessing had evidence of divine life in perfect harmony with the life of Christ. Their lives and their message proclaimed their possession of divine love—the master passion of all true spiritual activity.
“Great grace was upon them all.” A distinct and singular beauty and glory was manifested in the character of these believers, a beauty, and glory that could only be made possible by grace, and this gave power to their testimony.
In Acts 4.29 we read that the believers prayed for “boldness,” and the Lord must have answered their prayer because the apostles kept on testifying about the resurrection of Christ.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
We are not told that these men sold all they had. It is possible that many of them did just that, but it is more likely that they sold a portion of their possessions, and the amount received from the sale was placed in the common fund. We do not read of a similar fund existing anyplace other than at Jerusalem.
The money obtained from the sale of these houses and lands was brought and laid “at the apostles' feet”—an act through which the believers gave the apostles undisputed and absolute control over how these funds were used. The practice of placing the contribution at the feet of the apostles may have come from an old legal custom by which property was transferred by placing it at or under the feet of the recipient.
“And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” (The Greek reads, “Unto each according as any had need.”) In other words, when any believer in that assembly had a need, that need was met with funds from the common treasury. There were undoubtedly many in that company that did not have needs, and they, of course, lived from their own income.
The “distribution” was meant only for the needy—widows, others who had specific needs, and those who could not support themselves while they took part in preaching the Gospel and spreading the good news that Jesus saves. It is also possible that some of these saints had lost their livelihood when they embraced Christianity. The apostles distributed the funds as the need arose. In John 9.22 we are told that the parents of the blind man to whom Jesus gave sight would not testify about who had given sight to their son “because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.” I believe we can reasonably assume that some among this company of believers had become little more than outcasts, when they had accepted Christ and took up their new way of life by following Jesus.
Whatever happened to be the extent of this “communistic” experiment it appears to have broken down very soon after it began, perhaps on account of the dissension between the “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” (Acts 6.1), and second, because the administrators who had been appointed as a result of the dispute had been driven from the city by the Jews. It was probably the case also that the eager expectation of the Second Coming led to a lack of concern for the future, so that the Christian community was always poor. Accordingly, we find the selling of possessions by the Jerusalem Christians was followed by the sending of alms to the mother church by the prosperous daughter churches. Antioch sent relief by Barnabas and Paul (v. 11.30); Paul was asked “to remember the poor,” presumably of Jerusalem (Gal. 2.10); and later he brought a contribution from the Gentile churches (Rom 15.25).
36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,
37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
Many versions read “Joseph” instead of Joses. This man may be singled out here because he was a foreigner—that is, he was not a native of Jerusalem. His selling of houses and land was a remarkable incidence of sacrificial liberality on the part of a believer. He gave himself and his property wholeheartedly in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he went on to preach the Gospel and distinguish himself in the work of the ministry in a very unusual way, as we will learn later.