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“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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Here’s the plan. Everyone here start selling your property. Cash out your bank accounts and withdraw the funds from your IRAs and 401ks. Put your house and land on the market. And then bring in the proceeds and put it in the offering. I’ll make sure that it gets distributed to everyone who needs it. How’s that sound?
You heard our text, didn’t you? Isn’t that what the Church in its early days did? “They had everything in common.” The “owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It worked wonderfully: “There was not a needy person among them.” Why shouldn’t we be doing the same?
Oh, I can see it by the looks on your faces. You know there’s something wrong with this plan. But what is it?
It’s not that it’s a form of socialism (though socialism has its own problems). The Bible does not put forward any economic system over another. It’s not just that your pastor would be the one who collects and distributes all the money as he sees fit. (Though that certainly has the potential for abuse, or even worse: developing into a cult.) No, there is a bigger problem with this plan: It is misusing scripture. It would be making this passage prescriptive rather than descriptive.
Let me explain the difference: Prescriptive texts prescribe—they tell you what you should be doing. So for instance, when the Lord says, “You shall not kill,” it’s prescriptive: He’s telling you what you should be doing, namely preserving life. Likewise, He tells you to repent, “Take and eat,” love your neighbor, etc. Those are prescriptive texts. On the other hand, descriptive texts simply describe things that happened without telling you to do anything. Some examples would be texts that tell that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish or that Jesus walked to Jerusalem. You don’t have to be swallowed by a great fish or walk to Jerusalem to be a Christian: these are simply things that happened.
Sometimes, people confuse the two and turn descriptions into laws. For instance, I’ve heard that since David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, we should include dance in worship. Or, since the apostles spoke in tongues on Pentecost, we must speak in tongues, too. Or since Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, we should have foot washing in our Maundy Thursday service. But this is bad interpretation: this is turning descriptions into commandments.
Our text is another example. It’s descriptive: it tells us what the first Christians did, how they handled their resources. But it isn’t prescriptive: there’s no command in the text that you must do the same thing to be a Christian. You don’t have to sell everything and give it to me to be a forgiven child of God.
So why is this text here—why is this description included? The answer may be unexpected, but also unsurprising: this description is here to point to Christ.
“There was not a needy person among them,” says our text; and while it doesn’t show up in the English, there’s a link in the language that points us back to Deuteronomy 15:4-5: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.”
Back at Moses’ time, the Lord declared to the Israelites that there would be no needy people among them in the Promised Land if they were careful to obey all His commands. You know what happened: they failed to keep His commands and rebelled against Him. In consequence, there was poverty, hunger, invasion, and death. They were needy because they rejected the Lord who provides.
In Acts 4, the first Christians are in Jerusalem, the heart of the Promised Land. They have not carefully obeyed all of God’s commands, either—they’re sinful, and don’t deserve the Lord’s blessing. They would be lost and condemned, but they trust in Christ who has just died for their sins and risen again. For the sake of Jesus, God blesses them because He sees them as forgiven, He sees them as His beloved children who have kept His commands. Therefore, He fulfills His promise: there are no poor among them, because the Lord has blessed them.
First and foremost, He has blessed them with salvation in Christ. By means of the Word, great grace is upon them all. Next, He blesses them with what they need for this life. How? As He often does, He uses people to accomplish His will. He uses Christians to share with each other so that there is no needy among them.
In other words: in Deuteronomy 15, the Lord declared that there would be no needy among His people when He blessed them. In Acts 4, the fact that there is no needy among them is an announcement that God has blessed them, He has blessed them with redemption in Christ. The fact that there are no needy among them is an announcement that the Messiah has come and saved His people.
We do not read of class conflict, of social cliques, in the Jerusalem church. What we find is people who are “of one heart and soul.” They have “everything in common.” The church’s unity expressed itself in a willingness to share. This was not a regulation of the apostles. The right to hold property and have personal possessions had not been abolished. But no one took the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.” Voluntarily, they used what they had to supply for the needs of others.
What held all these people together was their one faith; they were “those who believed.” Faith is the inner and essential bond of union in the Church. The communion of saints is such by faith alone. Mere outward connection with a church body does not constitute true membership, although it may lead to that. This is a spiritual state in the soul and not a matter of outward arrangement. Although faith, of course, produces many visible results, for those who believe will show their faith in many ways, and all these manifestations are valuable, but valuable only as evidences of the inner state, the precious saving faith itself.
So the first believers share what they have with one another. Thankful for grace and trusting that God will provide, they have everything in common. Like other signs in the days of the apostles, this bit of utopia won’t last long. Two verses after our text, we read of Ananias and Sapphira, who sell some property, say they are giving it all to Church, but secretly withhold some for themselves, and are struck dead. In the next chapter, some of the Greek believers complain that their widows are being neglected in favor of the Hebrews in the daily distribution.
And persecution is just around the corner. Those who have rejected the blessings of Jesus will come after His people. Rather than share and provide, they will take and confiscate. They’ll drive the believers out of Jerusalem: they’ll all be starved nearly to death before the Romans break down the walls and finish the job.
So there you go: the lesson of this text is not that you have to sell everything you have and give it to me. Rather, the charity of these first Christians is announcement that God has blessed His people by sending the Savior.
Having said all that, though, there is a danger in becoming too attached to the things that you are free to hold on to. Possessions so easily become idols that we must hold on to and can’t part with, even when it means ignoring those in need. In one of Aimee and my morning devotions this week, we read Hebrews 10:32-34, which says in part to early believers:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
Already at the time of that writing, zeal is fading among Christians and the writer tells them to stir up one another to do good works. In the early days, they were willing to endure suffering—and rather than just give things away, they accepted the plundering of their property joyfully. Why? Because they knew they had a better possession, an abiding one. They knew the value of the salvation won by Christ. It is the same salvation that Christ bestows upon you.
Therefore, you are set free to be God’s instruments, to give what you have to those in need. And while you are in no way required to sell everything you have, a lack of charity to neighbors and offerings to God is a warning signal—an indication that your possessions may have become your gods. Face it: greed, covetousness, and a lack of compassion come easy to self-centered sinners like you and me, turning the daily bread God gives us into idols that seem more precious than the forgiveness Christ has won.
A natural response is along the lines of, “Well, how much should I give?” or “How much do I have to give?” or “How much do I get to keep?” These are all questions that call for a Law answer, a command about generosity. But you don’t give to others because you have to as a Christian; you do so because you are free to. You do so because you know that you have a better possession and an abiding one. For the sake of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is yours.
So I cannot tell you how much to give: I can tell you how much we need to meet our annual budget, but not how much of that is on you. Rather, I urge you to examine yourself for sins like greed or fear that would keep you from giving to others. I would bid you to confess them, lest those sins become unforgiven obstacles that eventually lead you to forsake the Lord. And as one forgiven, I would urge you to meditate upon the gift of life that God has given you. As you do so, I would predict that your motivation towards giving grows—not because you have to change, but because you have been changed.
For you have a better possession and an abiding one. You have unfailing grace and life all for the sake of Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins and raised for your salvation. See, there’s one more bit of good news in how those first Christians shared when the Lord blessed them: it’s a foretaste of eternal life. It’s a preview of the restoration of Paradise.
Here, there is a poverty of life, health, joy, happiness—all because of sin. But when you are raised from the dead, all such poverty will be gone: the Lord “will wipe every tear from [your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). All poverties will be vanquished, and all that is left is abundance: and abundance of every good gift from God.
That’s your hope, all for the sake of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and raised for your justification. Whatever your amount of daily bread, you are not needy for salvation, because the Lord showers it upon you by His Word and Sacrament. Great grace is upon you, and so you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.