October 28, 2013

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

Topic #II: The Church in Jerusalem, Acts 2.1-8.3

            Subtopic C: The Church Ministering in Jerusalem (Acts 3.1-8.3)                   

Subtopic 3: The Reaction: Persecution (4.1-37)

 

Lesson II.C.3.c: The Continuing Unity of the Church (4.32-37)

 

 

Acts 4.32-37 (KJV)

 

32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.

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.

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.

 

 

Introduction

 

We have been considering the infant Church in the midst of hostile forces. We now come to a section of the book which gives us a glimpse of the internal conditions of the Church at that time, and particularly of the fellowship that existed around old Jerusalem First Christian Church.

The believers had prayed and God’s Spirit had filled them and given them new power. The church that believes in the power of prayer will know the blessing of the Holy Spirit in its ministry. How can we tell when a church is really filled with the Spirit? When you go back to that first filling at Pentecost (Acts 2.44-47), you will discover three outstanding characteristics of a spirit filled church:

1.    It is unified (vv. 2.44, 46).

2.    A Spirit-filled church is active and well-known in the community, and will have “favor with all the people” (v. 2.47).

3.    A Spirit-filled church is multiplied, because the Lord will add new believers to the church daily (v. 2.47).

Luke had two reasons for including this passage here. For one thing, he used it to introduce Barnabas to his readers. A common technique of Luke was to introduce a character quickly in a minor role and then later bring him on stage in a major role. This is what he did with Barnabas.  Luke’s second purpose in these verses was to show how Barnabas and the rest of the Church contrasted with Ananias and Sapphira (chap. 5). The generosity of the Church and especially Barnabas differed markedly from the selfishness of that husband-wife team.

 

 

Commentary

 

32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.


In verses 32 through 35 there is a general description of the condition of the church in Jerusalem. But it is not something new, because the same condition existed back at the beginning of the Christian Church, immediately after the giving of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. In chapter 2, verses 42 through 45 there are four things mentioned which characterize the infant Church.

FIRST, the believers “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine”—which does not mean that they simply listened to the apostles teaching, but that they accepted it and supported that teaching by the way they lived their daily lives.

SECOND, they continued steadfastly “in fellowship”—that is, all the believers were together (physically and spiritually), and “had all things in common.”

THIRD, they continued “breaking bread from house to house (and) did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Forth, they continued steadfastly “in prayers . . . praising God . . . and the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved.”

The one hundred and twenty believers who went into the upper room on the Day of Pentecost were baptized into one body with the Lord Jesus as the head and every believer as a member of that body, the result being that they were united in heart and mind, and continued steadfastly in fellowship.

The Greek word “koinonia” has been translated here as “fellowship.” There may be no richer word in the New Testament, since there is no single word that can convey all of the meaning, depth, and richness implied by the Greek word; therefore, it has been translated in many ways—“fellowship . . . communion . . . communication . . . distribution . . . contribution . . . partakers . . . partners.” Our present verse contains the root from which “koinonia” comes; so we see that fellowship means “having all things in common.”

The deep and precious teaching here is that born again believers have fellowship with God—that is, we have “all things in common” with God. Now we are children of God—“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the SONS OF GOD: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.1, 2). We are hid with Christ with God, now“For ye are dead, and your life is HID WITH CHRIST IN GOD (Col. 3.3). We are heirs of God now“And if children, then heirs; HEIRS OF GOD, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8.17). All the resources of God are at our disposal, and the resources of the child of God are entirely at God’s disposal.

Pentecost brought the early Christians into a new relationship with Christ which resulted in a new relationship with God—and inevitably into a new relationship with each other. Therefore (and out of necessity) they had “all things in common” with each other.

The same is true today in the Church of the living God. When we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ we are immediately baptized into the body of Christ—“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are WE ALL BAPTIZED INTO ONE BODY, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12.12, 13). We have a new relationship with Jesus Christ; we are in Him“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are IN CHRIST Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8.1). He is in us—“To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is CHRIST IN YOU, the hope of glory” (Col. 1.27). Since we have a new relationship with Christ, we also have a new relationship with God, the heavenly Father, for in Christ we are “hid with Him in God”—“For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3.3).

We are in Christ, He is in us; therefore we should walk as He walked (live as He lived). In the letter Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus he urged them to walk worthy of the calling wherewith they were called, “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.1-3). There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling). In the next verse (Eph. 4.4) he explained what he meant by “unity of the Spirit,” declaring, “There is one body, and one Spirit.” That one body is Christ, and all believers are members of that body, since they have been baptized into it by the Holy Spirit. Next Paul showed how Christians acquire this oneness: There is “one Lord (Christ), one faith (trusting Him Completely), one baptism (the baptism of the Spirit making the believer one with Christ).” And finally, Paul tells us the results of this oneness with Christ: “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4.6). As a result we have “koinonia”—fellowship, having “all things in common”—believers made partakers of divine nature—“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might BE PARTAKERS OF THE DIVINE NATURE, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pe. 1.4); seeing the divine light in the Word—“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1.7); feeling with divine love—“We love him, because he first loved us (1 John 4.19); living with divine life because Christ is our life—“When Christ, WHO IS OUR LIFE, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 3.4). These things form the basis for the communion (“all things in common”) of this chapter, and now we will see the results of this fellowship—its power, its principles, and its practice: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.” “The multitude of them that believed” refers to the whole body of Christians and is practically synonymous with “the church.” The power in the lives of these early Christians existed because they were of one heart and of one soul, but it came from the fact that they believed. The fellowship described would be impossible if they were NOT born again believers, and it was the new birth that made these people of one heart and one soul. The two phrases “of one heart” and “of one soul” were not carelessly selected by Luke; they were put here by the Holy Spirit. The heart is the emotional and inspirational part of the individual; from the heart proceed “the issues of life,” according to Proverbs 4.23. The soul is the center for love and hate—and it is the soul that is born from above, having been created new by Christ Jesus. Thus all believers have a new life.

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 thing 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 fund raising 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 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 was 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.

“Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas . . . This is the first mention of “Barnabas” in the Bible. The giving of surnames was widely practiced in that day, and the surname usually expressed the character of the person to whom it was given. “Barnabas” was a name taken from two Syriac words, the first word meaning “son” and the second word meaning “prophesy.” Thus Barnabas means “the son of prophesy.” The Greek word that is translated here as “consolation” means literally “exhortation, entreaty, petition, or advocacy.” We find this applied to Barnabas in Acts 11.22, 23, where the church in Jerusalem sent him to Antioch where “when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and EXHORTED them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave to the Lord.” Was he given this nickname because he was a great comfort and consolation to the Jewish-Christian community through the gift of money obtained from the sale of his property?

“A Levite, and of the country of Cyprus.” The entire tribe of Levi was set apart for the service of the temple and the Jewish religion. Cypress was one of the largest Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Historians tell us that there were many Jews living there. We know from Acts 13.4 that Paul and Cyrus were sent there by the Holy Ghost when Paul took his first missionary journey. Then in Acts 15.39-41 we read that Barnabas again went to Cyprus to preach, taking Mark with him while Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia.” He is generally associated with the apostle Paul as a traveling companion on Paul’s first missionary journey. The two traveled together in fellowship and harmony until a feud came between them concerning John Mark. It was then that Barnabas took young Mark and sailed for Cyprus and Paul traveled with Silas on his second missionary journey. For a considerable period, until Paul took the leadership, he must have been the most prominent figure in Jewish-Christian circles.

Barnabas was a land owner—to what extent we are not told; but in verse 37 we are told that he, “Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.” Barnabas gave up all he had for the sake of the ministry in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus became the Savior of his soul, He also became the lord of his life. We need to realize as did these early Christians in Jerusalem, that true possessions are in Heaven. Our citizenship is in Heaven, and our Savior is there too. We are members of His body, and we are seated in heavenly places with Him. The kind of selfless living which is pictured here could be carried out for only a short while because of the spiritual condition of the Church. It is nonsense to say that we should put this into effect today. If we tried it, we would have utter chaos. Why? Because there must first be the same high spiritual level, and we don’t have that today. Let’s be honest and face up to it. We need to come into a closer relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

After reading this verse the question may be asked, “How could a Levite own property as Barnabas did? I thought Levites were prohibited from owning property.” This prohibition is found in Numbers 18.20, 24: “Then the Lord said to Aaron: "You shall have NO INHERITANCE in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. . . For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the Lord, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, 'AMONG THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL THEY SHALL HAVE NO INHERITANCE.’”  The answer may be that whereas the Levites were not to own land in Israel, they could own land elsewhere. Apparently Barnabas, being from the island of Cyprus, owned land there. It is also possible that his wife owned land in Israel and that together they sold it. Most probably the restriction in Numbers was no longer observed, as seen in the case of Jeremiah (Jer. 32.6-15).

It is true that these early Christians did not have the full revelation. They did not have the New Testament; the completed Word of God; but what they knew of the Lord Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection and his place at the right hand of God the Father, was enough to cause them to lose sight of earthly things and fix their eyes on things eternal. The Holy Spirit made Jesus so real to them that through His power they were able to bear witness to the truth—boldly and with conviction. The fact that these Christians believed in the bodily resurrection separated them from all other religions of their day, and it was because of this belief that “great grace was upon them all.”

That same grace should cause us to cling lightly to the things of this earth, and in these days when we know the Lord’s Second Coming is even now at the door we should set our affections on things above, and pray with John the Beloved, “EVEN SO, COME, LORD JESUS!”

 

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