Return to Unity

| Acts 4:31-37

The Point:  Walking with Christ brings us together in unity and purpose.

One Heart and Soul:  Acts 4:31-37.

[31]  And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. [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.

[31]  With the prayer for boldness complete, three signs of divine response follow: (1) the place where they pray shakes, (2) all are filled with the Spirit, and (3) they speak the word with boldness. The shaking of the place of prayer is an unusual sign of confirmation that God has heard the prayer. The filling with the Sprit means the enablement to proclaim the word that follows. This is a separate act from the indwelling that appeared in Acts 2. It is specific to the request for boldness, not a “second blessing.” The word is spoken with boldness. The phrase with boldness appears at the end of the verse, making it emphatic. The community’s goal to be enabled for mission is met. Action comes with words explaining what God is doing through the name of your holy servant Jesus [30], a theme of this entire literary unit from Acts 3:6,16; 4:10,12,18,30. In sum, this prayer is an expression of complete dependence on God, a recognition of His sovereignty, a call for God’s justice and oversight in the midst of opposition, for an enablement for mission, and for the working of His power to show that God is behind the preaching of the name of Jesus in healing and signs. It is a mark of success for the community that in preaching the word its members have walked the path of Jesus and have suffered rejection. The reliance on God, the resting in God’s justice, the willingness to suffer persecution, the desire to preach Jesus, and the call to God to show Himself – all are signs of a healthy community. The presence of rejection and opposition is not a surprise, nor is it sought, but suffering is embraced when it comes from God. Turning to God leads to boldness. The community’s members, as their leaders have done, will obey God and proclaim the name of Jesus. They will not be silent about the unique way God has chosen to save. Their gathering together for prayer is a major expression of their unity. United in one voice before the one God, they seek to do the one thing God has called on them to do, namely, to minister and to proclaim the work of God through Jesus. All of this is rooted in two key convictions: (1) the Lord-servant relationship between God and His followers and (2) the focus on accomplishing a key mission God has called the community to do – to share the name of Jesus and God’s work through Him. The early believers’ self-understanding and dependence on God lead them to face opposition with boldness. They also face it together, not in a series of individual efforts where each acts on one’s own. This unity in community gives them added strength to know they are not alone in the cause. God responds with enablement for the community. The word is both preached and lived, but most important, the people of God are enabled for the task God calls them to undertake. The best way to face opposition is through what God provides.

[32-37]  There is unity of heart and soul among the community. As they prayed with one voice in verse 24, so now they are committed to each other in terms of resources. The united rejoicing of one heart is like Acts 2:44-46, where the first mention of common possessions appears. The adjective is part of the series of cognate terms that mean sharing in something with others. The term ‘fellowship’ is one of these terms, as is the verb ‘share’ and the noun ‘partner’. This sharing of possessions shows how connected their mutual participation is. It extends even down to possessions, as verse 34 explains in more detail. The point is that many are voluntarily giving over a great deal of their possessions for the use of all. The result is that community members’ needs are met. Two characteristics reflect the apostles’ activity: great power in the ongoing witness to the resurrection, and great grace. The witness to the resurrection surely includes declarations like those seen in Acts 3 and 4. God’s presence and the proof of divine enablement for the apostles is also a point. The verb were giving [33] is imperfect, so the ongoing character of the powerful witness is the more dominant point rather than miracles, although miracles may also be in view. It is the resurrection as exaltation that is highlighted, since it shows how God has vindicated Jesus. The mention of grace is another way to show that the prayer of 4:24-30 has been answered. The context, which highlights what God is doing, favors a reference here to grace from God, not favor from the people as in 2:47. The apostles as early overseers of this community are at the center of its activity. As the operation grows in complexity and problems arise, a new arrangement for relief will surface [6:1-17]. Such sociological flexibility is necessary to manage the community’s growth and commitment to each other. By 11:29, this community is receiving help from other communities outside Jerusalem. Everything about the portrayal of this scene is positive in Luke. The type of mutual care and concern it foresees is commended as exemplary and runs through the New Testament [2:45; 11:27-30; 24:17; Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:11-12]. No needy person [34] was a part of the group, as this pooling of resources meets all needs. Literally, there is no one who lacked in the community. This meets a standard God called for in Deuteronomy 15:4, where there are to be no poor because of God’s provision in the land for His people. The Old Testament passage is part of a larger discussion on possessions [Deut. 15:1-18]. All of these descriptions of the mutual care within the community are presented positively by Luke. These acts evidence the community’s piety and mutual commitment to God and one another. It is a sign that they see each other as family or friends, worthy of compassionate care. The explanation for the mechanism of achieving this concrete expression of community follows in verses 34-35. Some members own houses and land, part of a very small middle class in this first-century culture, about 10 percent of the population. The upper class was even smaller, constituting 4 to 7 percent. These members of the new movement are selling what they have and bringing the proceeds to the community as represented by the apostles, who oversee the distribution of resources. The verb tenses suggest a gradual liquidation of assets, not selling everything all at once. That Ananias and Sapphira could have kept some of their proceeds [5:3-4] supports the idea that such liquidation took place over time, not all at once, as does Mary’s owning a home in the city [12:12-13]. Such a need to pool resources may well have arisen because many in the new community were poor and, in addition, persecution may well have left others in the community isolated socially. So the response is one that emerges out of concern for fellow members. They are giving without expecting anything back in return, an ethic like that noted in Luke 6:34. The phrase at the apostles’ feet appears three times in Acts, all in this discussion of community activity that extends to 5:11 [4:35,37; 5:2]. Similar phrases in the Old Testament are a way of expressing obedience and submission. Here it indicates giving control of resources over to the apostles. The mention of those having need echoes Acts 2:45, its only other mention in Acts. An example of such giving is a Hellenistic or Diaspora Jewish believer named Joseph, also known as Barnabas to the apostles [36-37]. The difference between a Diaspora Jew who has come to Jerusalem and a Hellenistic Jew, a Hebrew who is influenced by Greek culture, is slight. It is debated which category Barnabas fits. Barnabas’ Greek identity emerges from his roots in Cyprus, one of three New Testament references to this locale [Acts 4:36-37; 11:20; 21:15-16]. The Jews settled the island of Cyprus during the Ptolemaic period (after 330 BC) but were expelled in AD 117 after rebelling. Barnabas most likely was born there or his family came from there. His religious roots are indicated by the fact that he is a Levite, one of only three references to a Levite in the New Testament [Luke 10:31-32; John 1:19; Acts 4:36-37]. Levites were often wealthy and very well educated, but not all were priests. Generally, in the Old Testament, Levites were not to own land, but life for Levites was different by the first century. Joseph is a very common name, which may explain why the apostles called him Barnabas. It is also not unusual for a person to bear two names. The meaning of the less-common name, “son of encouragement” well summarizes the way Barnabas will function in the book, as he will embrace Paul’s conversion, minister with him, and be an evangelist. He is referred to twenty-three times in the book. Barnabas will be well qualified for a mission to Gentiles, since he came from one of these Gentile areas. Part of the function of the unit is to introduce him to Luke’s audience. He surely is one of Luke’s heroes. The name may be closer to a nickname with the emphasis on one who gives encouragement. Barnabas matches the community’s description noted in verses 32-35 by selling a piece of land, taking the proceeds, and setting it at the apostles’ feet [35]. In sum, this unit testifies to the community’s mutual care and the concrete expression of its unity in the voluntary pooling of resources on behalf of the community. These resources are used for the care of those in need. This meeting of needs is a theme that will surface here and there in Acts. The unity of heart and soul in this community is transparent. Not only do its members declare the word of God powerfully; they also make sure that each one in the community has access to everyday needs. Community life means both mission and mutual care. These occur because people care about one another and the cause they share. They see their obligation to God, even their worship, to be reflected in respect for other believers, what 1 John 2 calls a love for the brethren. Unity does not come naturally because we often like to go our own way. But to those who share the goal of reflecting the unity and reconciliation that Jesus brings, there is a desire to be sure that His body, the church, reflects His goals through concrete means. But communities are often built on the leading example of an important individual. In our account, this is Barnabas. In Acts he cares for the poor, gives of his resources, welcomes Paul when others are skeptical, encourages him in ministering alongside him, leads a mission in a way that takes the initiative of engagement, and testifies about the work of God to those outside and within the community. He is what we call a rounded character in literary terms, as we see him in various situations, almost always in a positive light. It is no wonder this community did so well with the example of servant leadership Barnabas gave. Luke holds him up as a disciple whose example can be followed.”  [Bock, pp. 209-218]. 

In seeking to evaluate the so-called ‘Jerusalem experiment’, we shall be wise to avoid extreme positions. We have no liberty to dismiss it as a rash and foolish mistake, motivated by the false expectation of an imminent Parousia and causing the poverty which Paul had later to remedy by his collection from the Greek churches. Luke gives no hint of these things. Nor can we say, however, that the Jerusalem church, being filled with the Spirit, laid down an obligatory model which God wants all Spirit-filled communities to copy. The fact that the selling and giving were voluntary is enough to dispose of this. What we should surely do, instead, is to note and seek to imitate the care of the needy and the sacrificial generosity which the Holy Spirit created. Having portrayed the solidarity of love enjoyed by the Jerusalem church, Luke supplies his readers with two contrasting examples: Barnabas whose generosity and openness fulfilled the ideal [36-37] and Ananias and Sapphira whose greed and hypocrisy contradicted it [5:1-11].”  [Stott, pp. 106-108]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the result of the prayer meeting with these believers? Look back at 4:24-30 for the content of their prayers. List the things that the church prayed for? What motivated their prayer? Why did they ask for boldness? What does it mean to speak the word of God with boldness?

2.         One result of their answered prayer was that the church was of one heart and soul. How did this unity manifest itself in the actions of the believers? Note here the connection between church prayer and church unity.

3.         What two characteristics reflect the apostles’ activity in verse 33? Why are these characteristics essential for any gospel witness? Why did the apostles focus on the resurrection in their witness? Shouldn’t the resurrection also be the focus of our witness to an unbelieving world?

4.         Describe the character of Barnabas. Why was Barnabas a central figure (mentioned 23 times) in Luke’s account of the early church in the book of Acts?

5.         What warnings and instruction does Stott give us concerning how we are to evaluate the so-called “Jerusalem experiment?”

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.