All Things in Common

What was the early church really doing in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37?  Were they experimenting with some early form of communism?  Was this a failed experiment that led to the poverty of the church in Jerusalem?  These are very important questions that need to be answered in order that we can better understand these passages and apply them to our lives.

First, to the question of communism the answer is a resounding no.  The early church was not compelled by force to give their possessions.  There was no mandatory redistribution of wealth.  This is made clear in Acts5:3-5.  Ananias’ sin was not that he desired to keep some of the proceeds from the land he sold, but that he lied to God.  Peter said that the land was Ananias’ to do with as he pleased, as were the proceeds from the sale.  So, clearly accepting Christ did not mean the immediate relinquishing of personal property.

Second, to the question of this being a failed experiment the answer also is no.  In both sections Luke very clearly presents this behavior in a positive light, and nowhere in scripture is it ever presented differently.  Luke goes out of his way to include both of these sections because they were commendable practices.  Luke also equates these practices with the church having God given favor among all people.

Further, there is ample reasons to account for the poverty in the Jerusalem church without blaming their willingness to sacrificially share their resources with the needy among them.  In general the majority of the population was poor.  By professing Christ they likely severed themselves from the traditional Jewish forms of charity.  The church was persecuted (Acts 8:1).  There was a famine in all the land and it affected the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:28-30).

What we see in these passages is simply the church living out the commands of scripture and the teachings of Christ.  It is interesting that Luke points out that there were no needy people left among the early church (Acts 4:34-36).  This is exactly what the community of God’s people should look like.  In Dt 15 Moses told God’s people that if they would obey the law, specifically the canceling of debts in the Sabbath year, there would be no poor among them (Dt. 15:4-5)  Although it was never realized in the nation of Israel (because they did not observe the Sabbath Year) it was realized in the early church.

The Lord Jesus taught on this topic in many places.  One significant teaching found in Luke 12 is that seeking the Kingdom of God means selling your possessions and investing in the kingdom.  For more on this see The Father Desires to Give You the Kingdom.  While other biblical writers are dated after Acts 2 and 4 we see that their teachings do not contradict this practice either.  See 2 Cor 8:1-15 and 1 John 3:16-18 for two good examples.

So, how is the church to apply these passages today?  They do not indicate a method that we must legalistically duplicate.  However, we are called to live in obedience to the very same teachings that led the early church to this practice.  These passages teach us that as believers we are to live simple lives set apart for the glory of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom.  When we do this God gives us great grace and favor among the lost world around us.  What that simple life looks like is between you and the Holy Spirit, but to be sure it does not look like the American dream.

Fairness in the Body of Christ

In 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 Paul encourages the church in Corinth to give financially to relieve the saints in Jerusalem.  The body of Christ in Jerusalem was suffering from severe poverty due to persecution and a famine.  Paul had been encouraging the Gentiles to help their brothers in Jerusalem and apparently the Corinthian church committed to helping but had not followed through (vs. 6, 10).  He does not command them to give, but appeals to the example of the Macedonian church and to Christ himself to stimulate them to action.

The churches in Macedonia were themselves enduring affliction and “extreme poverty” (vs. 2), yet they had an abundance of joy.  Their joy flowed from an understanding of the value of the Kingdom of Heaven.  They were like the man Jesus described who upon finding a treasure hidden in a field joyfully sold everything and bought the field (Matt 13:44).  By grace (vs. 1) the Macedonian Christians understood the unsurpassed value of the kingdom and thus freely gave out of their poverty in order to meet the needs of their brethren.  Apparently, Paul had discouraged their giving due to the harshness of their own conditions, but the Macedonians begged for the opportunity to participate in the relief of the saints.  The opportunity to participate, or share is fellowship (koinonia).  The use of this term illustrates the depth of what Biblical fellowship really is.  Far more than having a meal together, fellowship involves the bearing of burdens which is part of being members of the same body.

Further exceeding Paul’s expectations the Macedonians not only gave sacrificially of their financial resources they gave of themselves.  They committed themselves to God and as a result they committed themselves to Paul in order that they might care for their neighbor.  After all, to love God with all of our heart is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40).  The Macedonians were not only willing to give money, but they surrendered their time and talent to the will of God as well.  Maybe their compassion for the church in Jerusalem was the result of a firsthand understanding of the horrors of poverty; regardless the reason ultimately was the fruit of the grace of God (vs. 6).  Paul does not command the Corinthians to copy the Macedonians, but he points out that their support for the church in Jerusalem will demonstrate that their love is genuine (vs. 8).  As the Apostle John said if the love of God abides in us we cannot see our brothers in need and not be moved to respond (1 John 3:16-18).

Next, Paul appeals to the supreme example of Jesus Christ to motivate them to action (vs. 9).  Certainly, we are the receivers of great spiritual blessings from Christ.  He left the glories of heaven and willingly set aside his right as ruler of all creation in order that he could become a man.  In his humanity, for a time, he gave up the glory and riches of his deity.  This verse absolutely has immense spiritual significance; however we must not overlook its immediate context.  The reality is that Christ not only left the glory of heaven, but was born into physical earthly poverty.  He described his own circumstances as without worldly possessions (Luke 9:58).  Also vs. 9 is found in the middle of a passage on generous giving to meet real physical needs.  Thus in his commentary on 2 Corinthians Calvin says “Hence he (Jesus) has consecrated poverty in his own person, that believers may no longer regard it with horror.  By his poverty he has enriched us all for this purpose – that we may not feel it hard to take from our abundance what we may lay out upon our brethren.”  If believers are not moved by the example of the Macedonian church certainly the example of the Lord should motivate us to help the hurting among our brothers and sisters.

Paul proceeds to urge the Corinthians to follow through with their commitment (vs. 11).  It is not his desire that they would impoverish themselves in order to assist the Jerusalem church, but that they should give according to what they have (vs. 11-12).  He elaborates that the Corinthian’s abundance at the present time should be used to supply the Jerusalem church’s need, and their abundance would supply the Corinthian’s need.  This was, as Paul said, a matter of fairness (vs. 13-14).  Here is a beautiful picture of the interdependence of the body of Christ.  The idea is not that everyone would be on the exact same level, but that as members of the same body we would care for one another in the same manner we desire to be cared for.  The Corinthian believers, in Paul’s view, could willingly deny themselves some of the amenities of life in order that that weaker member of the body, in this case the Jerusalem church, could have an opportunity to live.  Could we not say the same about the American church?  No one would argue that we must bring our majority world brethren up to middle class American standards, but could we not simplify our lives in order that they might have clean water, food, modest housing, and an opportunity to provide for their families and their churches?  This is what Paul is essentially arguing for.

Several verses below this passage Paul makes a very good point that I will close with.  He says “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor. 9:6).  In fact I would encourage you to read 2 Cor. 9:6-15 in light of what we have just discussed above.  All that we have is the Lord’s.  He has freely given it to us and when we freely invest it in his kingdom he can and will multiply our seed and increase the harvest of our righteousness (vs. 2 Cor. 9:10).

By This We Know Love…

I love 1st John, it’s one of my favorite books in the New Testament.  As I was reading this morning I stopped on chapter 3 verses 16 – 18.  I spent some time thinking about what this passage means and thought I would share what the Lord showed me.  It is a hard teaching, but one I believe the church desperately needs to apply.

As John discusses love, he says that we are to love one another (vs 11).  This has been taught from the beginning, it’s Christianity 101 so to speak.  As such, John says that we have assurance of our salvation because we love the brothers (vs 14).  In fact, those who don’t love are said to remain in death.  So, if one of the basic results of our faith is love for the brethren and we find assurance in this, it seems important to know what this love looks like practically.

Fortunately, John very clearly describes this love.  It is demonstrated perfectly by Christ in that He willingly and sacrificially laid down His life for us (vs 16).  That, is the incarnation of Christian love that Christ gave us, and it is the model that His followers will emulate.  As if John knew that the readers, like the Apostles with Jesus, would be quick to say I will die for the brothers; He quickly shows the true status of their hearts.  Just like Jesus many times before, he does this by going after their wallets!

He says that if we see our brother in physical need and could help but don’t then the love of God does not abide in us (vs 17).  In other words, we have no assurance of our salvation.  John says if we don’t care enough about others to help them then we do not love God.  Why does he tie these two things together?  Isn’t it possible to love God, but not help the hurting?

When we understand that Jesus laid down his life for us and we respond in repentance and faith God gives us a new heart.  God’s love abides in that heart.  God then tests the genuineness of our love by placing the poor and needy in our paths.  If we have a new heart that loves God we will display that love by sacrificially giving of all that He has given us to help the hurting around us.  However, if we do not have a new heart we will exhibit that by hoarding God’s blessings for ourselves.  This practice of hoarding demonstrates either a lack of love for the brothers, a lack of trust in God, or both.  In either case John says it illustrates the true condition of our hearts.

Certainly, we are called to care for our families and to wisely plan for the future.  However, when we are so consumed with these that we ignore the needs of others we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me?  When we allow our earthly desires to consume the resources God graciously provides, with no thought of sacrificing for the care of others, we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me?  This is a teaching that I daily struggle to apply in my own life, but it is none the less the word of God and the true follower of Christ must be conformed to it.