Acts 4:32-35 Biblical Commentary:
The little Christian community has grown rapidly. Three thousand were baptized on the Day of Pentecost (2:41) and shortly later those who heard the word and believed “the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (4:4). We don’t know whether this includes the original three thousand or is an additional five thousand. It seems likely that, in accord with the custom of the day, these numbers include only men. To get total numbers, we should probably double the above numbers.
In any event, we should not think of this early church as a small band of believer who could gather together in someone’s living room. It is a far more substantial group than that—a brand new, fast-growing group that should be struggling to get its feet on the ground. But our text shows that they have achieved a remarkable unity and harmony.
This church lives in a world that is hostile to its purposes. The council (Sanhedrin) has tried Peter and John for preaching the resurrection (or for healing a lame man—the charges are uncertain) (3:1 – 4:22). The Sanhedrin failed to take any serious action against these apostles, primarily because Peter and John were popular with the people (4:21). They ordered Peter and John not to preach any further “in the name of Jesus” (4:18), but Peter and Paul made it clear that they were called to preach by God and that they would obey God rather than the council (4:19-20).
After the council released them, Peter and John reported what had happened to the church, and the church prayed for the courage to proclaim the Gospel with boldness (4:23-31).
ACTS 4:32. THEY HAD ALL THINGS IN COMMON
32The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.
“The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common“ (v. 32). At the conclusion of the Pentecost story, Luke emphasized this same kind of togetherness and common ownership. “All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need” (2:44-45).
Their common ownership was not imposed on them by church leadership, but had its roots in their unity of heart and soul. These Christian brothers and sisters loved each other, and so they took care of each other. They had all grown up in a society where the family was the social unit on which they could rely when they experienced tough times. For some, the decision to follow Christ meant that they could no longer rely on the support of their family. The church became their new family.
The common ownership of the early church has sometimes been likened to communism, because the stated ideal of communism is “From each according to ability and to each according to need.” However, there are many differences:
• Communism is atheistic, and the Christian church promotes belief in God.
• Communism is a political system. The Christian church is a religious system.
• The reality among communists is hardly one of equal sharing. Those in power always live lavishly, while those with less power tend to live quite poor lives. The church is not perfectly altruistic, but it promotes helping those in need.
• Communism imposes common ownership in a “top down” manner. The state controls ownership, and the individual has little or no say. That was not true for these early Christians. In the next chapter, Peter rebukes Ananias and Sapphira for trying to deceive the church by making it appear as if they were more generous than they really were. Peter comments, “While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.” (5:4). In other words, their sin was dishonesty. Their gift was wholly voluntary.
Nor should we imagine that these early Christians owned nothing as individuals. As noted above, Ananias and Sapphira had property and the right to keep it. They had the right to give part of their money, all of it, or none of it to the church. In chapter 12, we will encounter Mary, a Christian who owns a house and keeps a maid (12:12-13).
But the unity of heart and soul finds concrete manifestation in the sharing of possessions. That is remarkable. We find a great deal of comfort and security in possessions—we find it difficult not to love our money and to covet the money of those who are more affluent. We might find it possible to leave a generous tip at a restaurant or to hand a homeless person a dollar bill. It would be quite another thing to sell our house and to put the proceeds in the church offering plate. A unity of heart and soul that leads to generous sharing of possessions is truly unity.
ACTS 4:33. GREAT GRACE WAS ON THEM ALL
33With great power, the apostles gave their testimony (Greek: marturion—testimony or witness) of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace (Greek: charis) was on them all.
“With great power, the apostles gave their testimony (marturion) of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (v. 33a). This is the heart of the church’s mission—witnessing to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The apostles do their witnessing “with great power”—Jesus’ power—available to them as they act in Jesus’ name (4:7, 10, 30). The word “power” probably refers to miracles that they are working (4:10, 30).
“Great grace (charis) was on them all” (v. 33b). In the New Testament, charis most often refers to the grace or the undeserved favor of God. That is certainly part of what is meant here. God is showering these new Christians with blessings.
However, the word charis can also refer to the loveliness of harmonious relationships, and that is also involved here. These new Christians are living as brothers and sisters—as family. They are taking care of each other—making personal sacrifices to help each other—considering the well-being of Christian brothers and sisters above their own personal welfare in many cases. To live in that kind of harmonious community makes it possible to drop one’s defenses—to assume the best of one’s neighbor instead of the worst—to resolve differences without rancor—to live without fear of physical danger or financial catastrophe or personal rejection. It is a level of graceful living that humans seldom achieve. When they do achieve it, it is usually because of a common commitment to a higher ideal—or by the grace (charis) of God.
The charis that these Christians are enjoying extends beyond their tight circle. Luke has told us that they enjoy “the goodwill of all the people” (2:47).
ACTS 4:34-35. THERE WAS NOT AMONG THEM ANY WHO LACKED
34For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold (Greek: polountes—were selling) them, and brought (Greek: epheron—were bringing) the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need.
“For neither was there among them any who lacked“ (v. 34a). Much earlier, Yahweh promised Israel, “However there shall be no poor with you; (for Yahweh will surely bless you in the land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it;)” (Deuteronomy 15:4).
Jesus’ concern for the poor permeates Luke’s Gospel. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, described his mission in this way:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
While a person might be spiritually poor, physical poverty, captivity, blindness, and oppression are realities with which many people live. Jesus conceived of his mission, at least in part, as providing relief to those afflicted by these physical conditions. His miracles had a spiritual purpose, but they were also intended to heal physical ailments.
“for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold (polountes—were selling) them, and brought (epheron—were bringing) the proceeds of the things that were sold“ (v. 34b). Bock notes that epheron is imperfect, giving it the sense of “were bringing.” He says that polountes, although a participle, “has the force of an imperfect because of the verbs surrounding it.” These verbs “suggest a gradual liquidation of assets, not selling everything all at once” (Bock, 215).
The miracle that these early Christians experience is not one of God opening the heavens and filling their purses with money. It is a miracle of community—of brotherhood and sisterhood—of likeminded people sharing both wealth and poverty so that none might be truly poor. It is a miracle of generosity—human generosity inspired by divine generosity. It is a miracle of agape love—love that focuses on the needs of the other person rather than one’s own needs.
As noted above, this does not mean that every Christian sold every piece of real estate to contribute to the common good (see the comments on verse 32 above, particularly the last paragraph). Some Christians probably did sell everything—but Peter’s comments to Ananias and Sapphira make it clear that Christians retain the right to own property. What is celebrated here is not total communal living (in the sense that every possession belongs equally to every person), but compassionate living within community.
“and laid them at the apostles’ feet“ (v. 35a). Laying something at the feet of another person is a gesture of submission. The submission of these Christians is not to the apostles, but to the Lord who has chosen the apostles to serve him. The apostles become responsible for the stewardship of the property that they receive—property that that they administer in the name of the Lord.
“and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need“ (v. 35b). This is the purpose of the gifts. They are to be used to meet human need—not to satisfy human greed.
In the future, the apostles will begin to find this responsibility onerous (in the sense that it takes away from the time that they can devote to proclaiming the word of God). Just as Moses chose people to help him with ordinary tasks, these apostles will ask the church to select “seven men of good standing” to assist with the daily distribution of food (6:1-6).
POSTSCRIPT. TWO EXAMPLES:
After stating that the believers share possessions, Luke goes on to give two examples. The first is positive, but the second shows how Satan has infiltrated the church.
In the first example, Barnabas “having a field, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:37).
But in the second example, Ananias and Sapphira, man and wife, sold property and brought only part of the proceeds to share with the church. Their sin, however, was not that they failed to give all the money to the apostles. Their sin was their deception in keeping part of the money and making it appear as if they were bringing the whole amount (5:3-4). Therefore, God struck both Ananias and Sapphira dead (5:5).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Rottman, John M., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan