Suppose for a moment that you walked into the church foyer, and it was filled with booths. One or more of those were real estate booths where you could list your home for sale without even leaving church. There would also need to be a pawn shop, a used car lot, and so on. If you had not expected to find such things in the church, you might well turn to someone and ask what all these booths were doing there.
The response to your question might be that these businesses had been set up in the church to facilitate Christians who wanted to be obedient to the teaching of Acts chapter 2. In responding to just what this “teaching” was, it could be explained that the early—indeed the oldest—church (isn’t older always better?) was one that sold all of its possessions and gave the money to those in need. Thus, today you could come to church, sell your house and all your goods, give the proceeds to the church, and worship, all at one time.
You need never worry about this kind of thing happening in our church, but it happens all of the time with the cults. There are many cults which require their “converts” to give up all their possessions as the “right of passage” into the group. They may or may not base their requirement on the Bible, but were they to do so, Acts 2:41-47 would probably be one of their proof texts.
(Incidentally, if we were to conclude that the practice of the first church, the church born at Pentecost, were indeed setting a biblical precedent, a biblical pattern for all Christians to follow, I wonder how many of us would be willing to obey? In our materialistic culture, this would probably be the acid test of true faith.)
The Book of Acts does pose a dilemma for anyone who reads it with a heart tuned to the will of God. What should one make of the example of the early churches? Is everything found in Acts chapter 2, for example, a kind of standard? If the Spirit fell on the apostles at Pentecost and on other groups of believers later on in Acts (i.e. chapters 8, 10, and 19), does this mean that we have a right to expect it to happen, in the same way, to us? And if the early saints sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor, is this saying that God expects the same practice of us?
The Bible poses many tensions for the one whose heart is tuned to God, and who seeks to obey not only His direct commands but also to do anything which pleases Him. What commands of the Bible are we to obey today? Are parents to bring their disobedient children before the church to be stoned? Are we to circumcise our children? Should we expect, and even demand, that signs and wonders occur in our church and through us? And when we read in the New Testament that we are to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” are we being disobedient when we do not literally carry out this instruction, found several times in the epistles and by more than one apostle? For those who want to take the instructions of the Bible literally, they will find that they cannot (e.g., stoning their disobedient children) or will not (e.g. selling their possessions and giving to the poor) do so. For those who have a quick and ready excuse for not taking the Scriptures literally, there will always be a logical explanation for our not doing the difficult or the painful. What then is the answer? How do we determine what practices and instructions of the Bible are for us to take literally? And what do we do with the practices and precepts which we do not take in a starkly literal way?
Our text provides us with an excellent opportunity to sharpen our biblical methodology, as well as providing us with a powerful message. If we are to come to grips with our text in a meaningful way, we must first understand what Luke is describing. We must understand what characterized the first church, the church in Jerusalem. Second, we must seek to understand what this means for us. How do we interpret and apply the practices of the first church? In order to do this, there is a third matter of great urgency, and that is to arrive at some set of guidelines, some kind of approach, to the practices and precepts which we find in the Word of God. If we do this, we will be much better able to determine whether, for example, we are all required to sell our possessions as these early saints did.
The approach of this lesson will be to attempt to articulate a method by which we can study a passage of the Bible (not just in Acts) and seek to determine both its meaning (interpretation) and its message (application). After doing this, we will take one problem area from our passage and seek to determine its meaning and message. We will next attempt to articulate an approach to the Book of Acts (and other books of the Bible as well). Finally, we will conclude with a look at some of the characteristics of the early church and suggest their meaning and message for us.
The Book of Acts is a description, a description of the birth of the church and of the expansion of the gospel as an extension of the Gospel of Luke. To put the matter in words more closely approximating those of the author, it is an account of all the Holy Spirit continued to do and teach through the apostles, which Jesus began to teach and to do in His earthly ministry. The Gospels are an account of Jesus’ teaching and practice. Acts is an account of the teaching and practice of the apostles. While the Gospels and Acts focus on practice, we might say that the epistles focus on principles.
If we are to understand any text in Acts, we must first begin with the text itself. What does the passage say? What is Luke describing? We must seek to understand this in the light of the entire book. We must therefore understand Pentecost in Acts 2 in the light of all of Acts. For example, is the phenomenon described in Acts 2 consistently found elsewhere?12 Does Luke inform us that what we see in Acts 2 is a general experience or a special one?13 Having carefully considered the preaching and/or practice of our passage in Acts, we must go back in order to look for a precedent. Jesus commissioned the apostles to “go therefore” not only preaching the gospel and baptizing, but “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus, we must look for a precedent in the Gospels to the practice of the church in Acts. Is what we see in Acts obedience to what Jesus taught in the Gospels? (We should also look even further back, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, to the teaching of the Old Testament. Paul and the other apostles did this also—cf. 1 Corinthians 9:8-10; 14:34.) Finally, we must go to the epistles of the New Testament to find principles and precepts which guide and govern that which is described in Acts.
The following approach to Scripture results in:
(1) A careful examination of the passage we are considering.
(2) A careful examination of the context of that passage, which includes the teaching of the book as a whole.
(3) Seeking biblical precedent in the Old Testament and the Gospels.
(4) Seeking precepts (commands) and principles in the epistles, pertaining to this matter.
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:44-45).
Let us take this one segment of our text, and seek to deal with it using the approach spelled out above. We will first consider the background of our text and then make some overall observations about the passage.
Pentecost began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, resulting in a great noise, tongues of fire, and the apostles speaking the praises of God in the native tongues of those present. Peter’s sermon explained what had taken place in a very forceful way. He told his audience that what they saw and heard was part of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Their speaking in tongues was an evidence of the outpouring of the Spirit of which Joel foretold. If Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled, it also meant that the “Day of the Lord” was approaching, a day which would end in blessing for Israel but which would commence with judgment. Peter went on to suggest exactly what that judgment would entail (2:22-24). They had rejected the One whom God attested to be the Messiah, through miracles, and wonders and signs. Within the plan and purpose of God, they had put God’s Messiah to death—Jesus of Nazareth. God had raised Him from the dead, however.
The resurrection of Jesus should not be regarded as anything new, for David had spoken of this as a prophet. In his psalm, Psalm 16, he spoke of his hope as being based on the presence of God. His offspring would carry on the Davidic line, and one of His seed would fulfill God’s promise to him (David—2 Samuel 7:14) of an eternal throne. But how could this be if David’s son died, just as he would? His “Son,” David knew, would be his Lord, and thus He would be God in the flesh. As the living God, His flesh would not be allowed to corrupt. Even if He died (or was put to death), He would be raised. David was not speaking of himself, for his grave was nearby. He spoke of Jesus, his Son, whose empty tomb was nearby.
The final punch came from Peter’s reference to Psalm 110. Not only had Jesus been raised from the grave; He had ascended to the right hand of the Father. Psalm 110:1 indicated what was next on the program. God was to put the enemies of His Son under His feet. The next step, indicated by Joel 2 and Psalm 110:1 was the judgment of God’s enemies, and those enemies were those who had rejected His Son.
The impact was incredible. Cut to the heart, they asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do. Peter told them to repent and to be baptized, and thus to be saved from that evil generation and the horrible fate which would someday befall them. Approximately 3,000 did believe and were baptized. It is this group of people who will now be in focus.
First, Acts 2:41-47 is but the first description of the earliest church. Acts 2 is the beginning of the book, a part of the whole. If we are to understand Luke’s meaning in chapter 2, we must do so in the light of his entire work and not just this first portion.
Second, there is a clear process of development in the Book of Acts. If the doctrine of progressive revelation applies to the whole Bible, so it applies to the whole of any one book of the Bible. Luke is recording the progressive development of the church and even of the apostles’ understanding of the gospel. We cannot come to broad, general, conclusions apart from studying the entire book. We must withhold judgment and comment until we have considered the part in the light of the whole.
Third, it will become increasingly clear that there is a very obvious parallel between the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. If the ministry of the apostles parallels that of their Lord, so does the response of the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to the apostles parallel Israel’s response to her Messiah. There will be other parallels evident later on as well, such as the parallel drawn by Luke between Peter, his preaching and ministry, and Paul.
Fourth, we are still in the first section of Luke’s account of the birth and development of the church, which is the Jewish phase. We are still in Jerusalem. The apostles and the church are daily going to the temple to worship and pray. That will end in chapter 8, but not until then. The Gentiles will be drawn into God’s plan of redemption and into His church, but that is yet to come.
Fifth, the emphasis of these verses is corporate, not private or individual. The focus of these verses is on the church as a whole, not on the individual aspects and outworkings of faith in Christ.
Sixth, the description of the character and conduct of the earliest church, found here in Acts 2, is that of its total life and lifestyle, not just that of its corporate worship. This is, for me, a critically important realization. I thought for a long time that the four elements found in Acts 2:42 were those elements contained in its gathering for worship. But interestingly enough, worship is not one of the four ingredients. I now believe that these four elements are the four fundamentals of Christian life, but they need not be found in the church meeting.
This is very important when it comes to church growth. We have often struggled with the maximum size of the church. Is there a certain optimum size for our church? Is there a size that is best? Can a church get too big? Can one be too small? The Scriptures never tell us of an ideal size. In fact, we find the church is very large in Jerusalem in its earliest days, and yet the churches described in the epistles seem to be “house churches” and thus quite small. How then can we conclude that there is a certain ideal size for a church?
The Jerusalem church met both “in the temple” and “from house to house.” I am now of a mind that some things can be better done in large groups, while other things may best be done in small groups, or even in private. Thus, matters like the teaching of the apostles’ doctrine might just as well be done in a large class as in a small one (granted, interaction will be affected, but there will be much greater efficiency—think of how many times Peter would have had to teach the same lesson if he taught in classes of 5!). Sharing and prayer may be more effective in small groups. I have seen large prayer meetings in India where all prayed at the same time, but this seemed confusing (perhaps this is only my cultural bias).
Seventh, these verses are a description of the conduct of the earliest church, in response to the miracle of Pentecost and to the preaching of the gospel by Peter. This is an account of the first preaching of the gospel and of its results in the lives of those who believed and were saved.
Eighth, this description provided by Luke focuses our attention on three specific groups: (1) the apostles; (2) the church; and, (3) the unbelieving community of people who looked on, but who did not, as yet, come to faith. We will begin our study of this text by looking at each of these three groups and what Pentecost did to them.
One of the biggest problems with understanding the practice of the early church here is rooted in a failure of some translations. For example, the New Jerusalem Bible renders our text,
The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.
From this rendering, one would conclude that all the saints sold all their possessions, all at one time, and then lived together in some kind of communal dwelling. This is clearly not the case. In their commentary on this text, Carter and Earle point out that the tenses of the verbs, if properly rendered, would produce this translation:
“And from time to time they were selling their possessions and goods, and were parting them to all, according as from time to time any man had need.”14
Thus, there was not one great sale, but an on-going process, in which needs which arose were met by the sale of some property. People retained ownership of their goods but sold goods from time to time to meet the pressing needs of others.
Several things characterize the generosity of the early church as described here.
(1) The sale of goods was voluntary. There is no indication of this taking place by compulsion. This will be confirmed in Acts 5.
(2) The sale of goods took place spontaneously and not in some orchestrated way.
(3) We may well conclude that giving was done directly, from the donor to one in need. This is no intermediary mentioned here, no “middle man.”
(4) The emphasis falls on the church caring for its own. Luke informs us that they shared everything in common, and this is explained by the fact that when one was in need, another sold some possessions and met the need. Thus, the church was taking care of its own here.
As the Book of Acts proceeds there is a development, a clear sense of progress evident. In Acts chapter 4 we have a further definition. Here we are told,
… not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common to them (Acts 4:32).
This is a very significant detail. It was not that people gave up possession of all their goods but that they gave up ownership of them. Their things still belonged to them; they had them in their possession, but they did not claim to own them. They regarded themselves as stewards of their possessions, and thus they did not seek to hoard them. When another was in need of their possessions (or the money the sale of them would produce), they put that item up for sale and gave the money to meet the need.
Another development is found in Acts chapter 4. In this case, the meeting of the needs of others in the church was handled more institutionally. The money was not given directly to a needy person, but was “laid at the apostles’ feet” (4:35). Now there seems to be a kind of “needy fund” which is managed and disbursed by the apostles.
The incident with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5 (verses 1-11) sheds further light on Acts 2:44-45. Peter made it very clear to Ananias that the sale of his property was a “free-will decision” on his part. He was not in any way obliged to act as he did. He neither had to sell his property nor to give any of the proceeds if he did. Further, he could have given any part of the proceeds, rather than all of them (v. 4). His sin was not that of keeping part of the money, but of lying that he had given all of it (v. 4).
In Acts chapter 6 (vss. 1-6) we find even further institutionalization. The care of others becomes more and more organized and structured. The meeting of the needs of others was diverse. Some had occasional, emergency, needs. Others, like the widows, had a daily need. Thus, the widows were cared for consistently. Somehow, however, things were not as orderly as they should have been and some were discriminated against while others seemed to be more favored. Thus, the apostles appointed a group of spiritual men to oversee this task, so that it was done in a more orderly and impartial way.
Two more observations seem justified in the light of several of these texts.
(1) We are not told that everyone sold their possessions.
(2) We are not told that people sold all their possessions
Luke’s description is a general one. He is describing the conduct of the church in general, not the conduct of all the saints, without exception. Thus, Peter could speak to Ananias and Sapphira as he did about their possessions. They did not need to sell them, and they did not need to give all. Barnabas, we are told, “owned a tract of land” and sold it (4:36-37). This does not mean, necessarily, that Barnabas did not own other property. The church in Jerusalem continued to meet “from house to house,” so they surely did not live in one big communal house. It would seem obvious that many retained the possession of their homes and that this is where they met.
Acts chapter 11 provides us with information about a significant expansion in the vision and generosity of the church. Here it is the church at Antioch which, on hearing of a coming famine in Judea, determined to share with the saints in need there (11:27-30). While the church is still caring “for its own”—for fellow believers—it is now demonstrating a much broader definition of the church. The generosity has developed from helping one’s neighbor, one whom a person knew well and to whom he directly gave (Acts 2), to a more collective sharing (Acts 4), and finally to a kind of “international” generosity (Acts 11).
Luke has given us a description of the generosity of the early church. We now need to look for a biblical precedent for their conduct. Time does not permit us to search out the Old Testament, but I believe it is clear that God instructed His people to care for the needy, especially the “widows and orphans,” but also the “strangers,” the foreigners, the “Gentiles.”
When we come to the Gospels, we discover that Jesus had much to say about material possessions. Let me list just a few of the texts I believe serve as a precedent to the practice of the early church:
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:10-11).
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matthew 19:17-22).
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3).
“As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep” (Matthew 10:7-10).
Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied (Luke 22:35-38).
Even before the public appearance of Jesus as Messiah, John was preaching about money and material possessions. As can be seen, he did not call for people to give up the necessities, but he did teach that when one had a spare garment, it should be given to one who had none (Luke 3:10-11).
When Jesus began to preach and teach, He made it clear that material possessions were not the essence of life. Thus, those who were to be His followers were called to turn from materialism and to trust in Him to provide for them. Not all were called to sell all that they had, but some, like the rich young ruler, were. Those who did believe in Him, such as Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8), demonstrated this by their readiness to give to those in need.
When Jesus sent out the disciples, He had them take along only the bare necessities without anything extra. They were to trust in Him to provide, and they were to be supported by those who received their message. Later on in Luke (chapter 22), however, Jesus modified His instructions. The disciples were now told to make provision for their own needs. This was because Jesus’ popularity was waning, and because many who might once have welcomed them may now oppose them. There is then some change in how much the disciples should accumulate and provide for themselves, dictated by the society in which the disciples were to minister.
Put as simply as possible, material possessions were never to be an end in themselves, a goal, or a “god.” They were a means. They could be a means of proclaiming the gospel or a means to ministering to the needs of others. It seems to me that Jesus called on all men who would follow Him to give up material things as a goal, but that those who had possessions as their god, He called upon to sell all they had. This was for the good of those so directed, like the rich young ruler. Men could not serve two masters, and thus if money were the master of a man, Jesus called on him to get rid of it so that He could be his master.
The early church can be seen to have been taking the teaching of Jesus seriously, and in many cases, quite literally. But does this mean that every Christian must do likewise? We have already seen that the practice of the churches in Acts do not provide us with a uniform, consistent practice in this matter. In Acts chapter 20, Paul instructed the Ephesian elders to follow his example in working with his own hands and thus not becoming a burden to others. In addition, he worked with his own hands to support others. It is not just by selling our possessions that we can generate the money needed to help others; it is by rolling up our sleeves and going to work (cf. also Ephesians 4:28).
The New Testament epistles have much to say on the Christian’s attitude toward material things and his responsibility to care for the needs of others. Consider these passages:
Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality (Romans 12:13).
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10).
You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions (Hebrews 10:34).
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Hebrews 13:16).
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:16-17).
There is, as I understand these texts, a priority to be given to those who are members of the household of faith. This is similar to the practice of the church as we have seen it in Acts. We are to help others as well, but especially those within the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Both James and John make it clear that true, living faith will respond to the needs of a brother, and that those who avoid meeting these needs may only be claiming faith, rather than possessing it.
It would seem to me that Paul’s words, recorded in 1 Corinthians 7, are the most directly applicable to the early church in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 2. In the light of the shortness of the time, and the nearness of our Lord’s return, men ought to live in the present in the light of the future. Those who are married, as though they were not; those who possess, as those who did not. From our Lord’s warnings and from Peter’s message at Pentecost, it was clear that those who dwelt in Jerusalem would soon see the wrath of God coming upon that generation and that city, which had rejected Messiah and put Him to death. They lived as though the time was short, and it was. The nearer we believe the Lord’s return to be, and the more eager we are to see it come, the less we will cling to the things which are seen, looking rather to those things which are not seen but which God has promised those who trust in Him and who wait patiently for His return.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 5:1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 4:16–5:10).
While I do not see the Bible to be teaching that every Christian should sell all of his or her possessions, I do see it teaching (Old and New Testament) that all that we have has been given by God and that we are merely stewards of it. We are to use what God has given as faithful stewards. When we have more than enough and another has less than enough, we have the obligation to give that which we have in excess to meet the deficiency of another. I think this is the principle which Paul has laid down in 2 Corinthians:
For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. 13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality (2 Corinthians 8:12-14).
While the charity of the church in Acts chapter 2 does not prove to be the “rule” for all churches or for every Christian, it does serve as an excellent example and illustration of the change in values which the gospel brings. God may well prompt some to do likewise today, and it will be their joy to do so, just as it was a joy to the Jerusalem saints. He may not prompt others to do this. But in either case, what we have is what we have received from God, and we are required to be good stewards of it. The strong (the advantaged) are always under obligation to minister to the weak (the disadvantaged):
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves (Romans 15:1; cf. also Galatians 6:2).
Having looked more carefully at the matter of meeting the material needs of others, let us now look more generally at the character and conduct of the earliest church. Without going into the detailed study we have in the matter of material ministry, let us make some general observations about this infant church and suggest some areas of application to our own church and to our walk with the Lord. I have chosen to approach our text through a consideration of the character of the three groups distinguished and described in the text: (1) the apostles; (2) the general unbelieving population who looked on and who witnessed what was taking place through the apostles and the church; and, (3) the church itself. We will look most carefully at this last group, the church.
The first group to be affected by Pentecost were the apostles. It was here, at Pentecost, that they were endued with power from on high. Peter, who formerly denied his Lord, now spoke boldly, indicting his audience, squarely placing the guilt for rejecting Christ on them, and speaking of the wrath of God that would fall on them if they failed to repent. So too for the other apostles.
The apostles (by my way of understanding Acts 2:1-13) were those on whom the Spirit fell and those who spoke in tongues. It is they who all stand before this group, with Peter as their spokesman (2:14). It is they who are asked what they should do by the crowd, under conviction (2:37). It is the apostles, as I understand 2:42-43, through whom God worked miracles, signs, and wonders, thus accrediting them as His spokesmen. It was the apostles who proclaimed the way of salvation, and it was the apostles who were regarded as the authoritative source of teaching and doctrine. Pentecost, and the special power which came to the apostles on this occasion, set the apostles apart from the rest. Luke clearly distinguishes the apostles as a group from the church, the rest of the saints.
This is completely consistent with what Jesus had said during His sojourn on the earth and what He taught the apostles then.
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hades shall not overpower it. It will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19, NASB).
It is also consistent with the teaching of the epistles. All of Acts confirms this fact as well.
How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard. God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:3-4; cf. Ephesians 2:20).
It is, I think, of special significance that the author of Hebrews sets the apostles apart from others and from those who would follow, later on. The task of an apostle (at least of this specific task of apostleship) was a temporary one. They laid the foundation. They were the instruments whom God used to inscripturate that which Jesus had spoken and taught while on earth and which He purposed to reveal in His absence, so that the foundation of the church would be laid, once and for all. Apostolic succession is not biblical (in my opinion), and neither is it necessary, since this apostolic task is finished.
The teaching and preaching of the apostles was instrumental in the salvation of many—3,000 thus far. But there were also many who did not, as yet, come to faith and repentance. If the ministry of the apostles did not serve to convert these people, it did seem to have some impact on them nevertheless. The scoffers (2:13), who explained the phenomenon of Pentecost as the result of too much wine, seem to have been silenced, at least for a time. If the signs and wonders performed by the apostles did not convert them, they certainly caused many to stand in awe of them, nevertheless (2:43). If there was not faith, there was at least a measure of fear (this is what the text literally says, cf. the marginal note for verse 43 in the NASB). In verse 47, Luke adds that the saints had “favor” (literally, grace) with the people. Christianity may not have been personally held, but it was held in high regard, for the time being.
The popularity of the church will pass, even as our Lord’s popularity waned. Shortly, many will seek out the apostles, in hope of being healed (cf. 5:12-16). There will be “mixed emotions” it would seem, for apparently as a result of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira there was an even greater fear of the apostles (if not the church), such that at least some unbelievers feared to associate themselves with the church (or is it the apostles?—the text is a little vague here—cf. 5:13). The opposition of some of the leaders of Jerusalem quickly flared up (4:1ff.; 5:17ff.). By Acts 6-8 there are those who are eager and willing to silence the gospel by death.
The third and most important group described here is the emerging church, that body of new believers who repented and placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah as a result of Pentecost and the preaching of Peter. Let me draw your attention to a few of the characteristics of the church as described here by Luke.
The church in Jerusalem, though it was newly born, had a distinct identity. Those who were in and of the church knew it, and those who were without recognized the difference between the Christians and the rest of the population of the city. Even though many of the Jews were religious and though both believers and unbelievers still went to the temple and participated in the temple worship (cf. Acts 3:1), there was a discernible difference. Those who were saved were baptized, marking themselves out. By this they indicated that it was not by law-keeping or by their good works, but rather by faith in Jesus alone as their Messiah that they were saved.
Sadly, though we hear a fair bit of talk about separation, it is very difficult to tell the saints from the heathen these days. There are some saints (or so they claim) who refuse to identify themselves with the church. And there are all too many unsaved who have entered the formal ranks of the church. The church has become almost indistinguishable from the world, and the world has greatly infiltrated and infected the church. There is not the clear identity of a Christian today as there was then.
One of the most striking characteristics of the newly-born church in Jerusalem was their commitment. They were committed to Jesus, the Christ. They were committed to one another. They were committed to meeting the needs of others. They were committed to gathering together. The key expression here is “continually devoting themselves” (2:42) and the same term rendered “continuing” (2:46, NASB). The other key term or expression is “daily” or “day by day.” Day after day these saints pressed on, committed to the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. Day after day they went to the temple and ate from house to house.
How different the church is today. People hop from church to church, looking for that group which most ministers to them. And when it is not convenient, they stay at home. When the weather permits, they go out to the lake. I am not opposed to good times, but I am saying that we are not marked by the consistency and diligence of the early church. We need little or no excuse for “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). We need little prompting to do things which are more immediately gratifying.
If the first church had a strong sense of identity, they also had a strong sense of community. During our Lord’s early life, the disciples, due to personal ambition, were competitive and even argued among themselves. They argued, for example, over who was considered the greatest of them. But Jesus told them that the badge of discipleship was to be their love one for another. They would, through the Holy Spirit, have a deep unity, which would be expressed by a strong community among them. One of the strongest impressions we gain from Luke’s description of the first church was their sense of community. They were continually together, in the temple, and from house to house. And they also shared everything together. They “had all things in common” (according to the definition given above).
In our culture, community is not a strong emphasis, even in the church. We live in a very individualistic age. We are, by the definition of some, an “independent Bible church.” Unfortunately, this can simply mean that we are a church of independent, autonomous people—a group of rebels. While the early church was to be characterized by diversity, the “Lone Ranger” mindset was not considered a virtue. Community is a desperate need, not only in our church, but in every church which names the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
I have chosen the term spontaneity, not because I find it the best term to describe the church in Jerusalem, but because I could not think of a better term. What I mean by this characterization is that the church did what it did spontaneously. It did not act out of compulsion or out of a command, but out of desire and joy. People did not begrudgingly give up their possessions and minister to the needs of others. They jumped at the chance. It was an evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
It is interesting to note that while Peter promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who repented and were baptized (2:38), we read nothing in this characterization of the church about “signs and wonders” or even the gift of tongues being spoken by the congregation. I am not suggesting that phenomenon such as tongues may not have happened, but only that Luke does not bother to report that it did.
There is a very good reason, I feel. The gift of tongues was the evidence of the outpouring of power on the apostles, just as Jesus had promised (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). But the power of the Spirit in one’s life is not necessarily proof of piety. Charisma is not the same thing as character. The qualifications which are laid down for elders and deacons in the New Testament do not mention the possession of any particular gift, and certainly not of particularly spectacular charismatic gift. They do require Christian character. Luke’s description of the church here focuses on its conduct and its character, not on its charisma (other than that evidenced through the apostles). I believe this is a clear evidence of what is most important. Samson was a man on whom the Spirit came in power, but he was no example of godly character. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated by the miracle of generosity.
Closely related to the spontaneity of the conduct of the church was its mood and atmosphere of celebration:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:46).
It was not a morbid sense of duty or obligation which motivated the conduct of the church but a deep sense of gratitude and of praise. If I struggled with the term “spontaneity,” I find the term “celebration” precisely the term to employ here. Everything the church did, it did as a celebration, including its sacrificial giving. Evangelism was not merely a command, a task, or a ministry; it was the praise of God, the joy of the Lord overflowing, so that men and women could not help but to speak of the Savior.
Here is perhaps the most desperately lacking ingredient of all—celebration. Worship has become a fad, and celebration can be a part of worship, but celebration is not seen only in worship; it is seen in everything we do. Celebration is the fruit of the Spirit of God, perhaps a blend of love, joy, and peace. It is that which comes when we are aware of the grace of God at work in and through us. May God grant us a Spirit of Celebration in our church and in our individual lives.
As I compare our church and my life with that of the first church, I find many shortcomings. These characteristics are not goals to strive for so much as they are fruits. We should not work at celebration so much as we should seek to know Him. We should, in Jesus’ words, abide in Him and in His words. We should pray that we may not grieve the Spirit, but that the fruit of the Spirit might become evident in us. May those attitudes and characteristics of the first church be found in us, by His grace, and through His Spirit.
12 In 1 Corinthians 4:16-17 Paul argues on the basis of his consistent teaching and practice, not on some exceptional basis. We should seek, then, to determine what is consistently taught and practiced, and then follow that example.
13 In Acts 2:41-47 we find the church meeting daily. But this is not the consistent practice of the churches in Acts. It would seem, from Acts 20:7, that the established pattern of the church was to meet once a week, on the first day of the week, to break bread and for instruction.
14 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 40.