They Had Everything in Common
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Observations and Reflections
After John and Paul are freed, Luke begins a new episode in the book of Acts. He now turns his attention to the early church and how the Holy Spirit moved in the early communities.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)
Many American pastors have tried to distance themselves from this aspect of the early church because it looks an awful lot like socialism. It is, in fact, a form socialism at it’s basic core. However, it does not appear that the group itself owned any collective means of production, but rather, they privately owned individual means (as was common in the first century). But they used the proceeds to benefit the community, not just the individual. Socialism proper does not apply well to ancient economies since socialism is based around modern day economic theories which assume some form of mass production and centralized planning. Ancient cultures were often more of a collection of artisans, servants, and farmers.
With the mundane details of economics aside, it is clear that Luke intends to point out that the most basic tenant of the early church was that they all treated each other as family and that the desire for the temporal pleasures of this world were removed. The desire for possessions and money have virtually always been considered a sign of evil, from Jesus’ time, up to modern times. The idea that God will bless you financially for being a good Christian is uniquely a modern first world invention. Such proofs can be found in the practices of the early church and the writings of the early church leaders about money and possessions. Some church fathers wrote on the matter more than others but here is a sampling below.
Why do you watch in loneliness over your riches? why for your punishment do you heap up the burden of your patrimony, that, in proportion as you are rich in this world, you may become poor to God? Divide your returns with the Lord your
God; share your gains with Christ; make Christ a partner with you in your earthly possessions, that He also may make you a fellow-heir with Him in His heavenly kingdom. (Cyprian, On Works and Alms, Section 13)
Therefore you are an unfair and traitorous father, unless you faithfully consult for your children, unless you look forward to preserve them in religion and true piety. You who are careful rather for their earthly than their heavenly estate, rather to commend your children to the devil than to Christ, are sinning twice, and allowing a double and twofold crime, both in not providing for your children the aid of their father, and in teaching your children to love their property more than Christ. (Cyprian, On Works and Alms, Section 19)
If we have a supply of wealth and resources, let it not be devoted to the pleasure of a single person, but bestowed on the welfare of many. For pleasure is as short lived as the body to which it does service. But justice and kindness are as immortal as the mind and soul, which by good works attain to the likeness of God. (Lactantius, On the Anger of God, Chapter 23)
Let us stand ready to endure every violence, having nothing which we may fear to leave behind. It is these things which are the bonds which retard our hope. Let us cast away earthy ornaments if we desire the heavenly. (Tertullian, On Patience, Chpater 13)
we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions,
now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need; (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Section 14)
Justin Martyr is, perhaps, the closest eye witness to the practices of the early church that we have writings from. He even records the practices of the early church gathering in his First Apology. In the following selection Justin describes the weekly Sunday meetings, which included the wealthy giving to support the poor, the widows, and the immigrants.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when
the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a
portion is sent by the deacons.
And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit;
and what is collected is deposited with the president, who supports the orphans and widows and
those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the
strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
(Justin Martyr, First Apology, Section 67)
Justin’s description should be read with Acts 4:34-35 in mind.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:34-35)
Indeed, the social structure of the early church was one of a common support, with the biggest burden being on those who were well-off. From that common treasury anyone in need was supported, even foreigners living in the land. This, of course, should come as no surprise considering Christ’s teachings on money and possessions.
In God’s kingdom we are not owners of possessions, because all things belong to and come from the Lord. Rather, we are stewards of God’s possessions and we are expected to steward with grace and mercy to those in need. We are one body in Christ and no single part is superior to the other.
This the first example we see if what it means to give to the church both financially and spiritually. Having financial and physical needs was an important aspect of ministry because these apostles had now dedicate their lives to fully serving the church.
It is amazing to see how the church of God has come together as one unified body of believers. Many are making major sacrifices in order to give to the church and to help ensure that those who are in full time ministry, are able to be provided for. This is a beautiful picture of the Church showing just how much love and support they have for one another.
This is what the Church ought to be like today. It can be hard for many to give financially but there are so many other ways that one can contribute to the church. Serving in different ministries like Sunday school, before and after set up, greeting people, ushers and the list goes on are just ways that we as the body of Christ can help in making a church function as smoothly as possible.
This early church is an example of what it means to be totally and completely unified under the name of Jesus Christ. As a body of believers that is the main thing that should constantly bring us together and instill a desire to worship God and serve one another.
[Featured image: “St. Roch distributing alms“, painting by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld]