Acts 4:32–37: The Believers Share Their Possessions
This passage feels like a little sidenote, to me; it’s not part of a larger narrative (e.g. the previous few passages where Acts was looking at a significant healing and the side effects of that in the community), it’s just a detail about how the early Church operated.
It’s short enough to just quote:
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. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (verses 32–37)
There’s a sense in which this is a pretty straightforward passage, but another sense in which people from capitalist societies really need to think about this. Not because it’s unclear, it’s very clear, but because we need to think about how our societies are different from what we see here, and figure out if there are things that need to change. Which is difficult; it’s always difficult to look at one’s own society and culture and see ways in which it’s unbiblical, and much easier to look back on previous societies/cultures and see how they got it wrong—even though it would have been just as difficult for them to look past their own cultural norms and traditions to see where they were getting it wrong.
And to be clear, I’m not saying Acts 32–37 should be the blueprint for our society; this isn’t a polemic against capitalism. Not to mention the fact that there were thousands of Christians in the Church at this point, whereas there are billions now. There are logistical problems with this kind of communal living when your people are spread all over the world! And we’re responsible for our individual actions but society is society, so we’re not going to make the cultures in which we live like this.
At the same time, I do think it’s worthwhile for every single Christian to examine what they have, what others around them have, and think about how we, as individuals, should react to a passage like this. I speak as someone who has a lot; not just in a “first world vs. third world” kind of way (though most North American Christians should, at the very least, acknowledge that), but even within my own local region I have more than a lot of the people around me.
If I’m not treating my possessions as if they’re God’s possessions He will call me to account for it. Jesus died for my sins; how much punishment did He have to take on my behalf because I treated my possessions like they were my own, instead of treating them like a gift from God, that are His to do with as He pleases? Woe be to me if anyone in my local church doesn’t have enough to eat! In this passage a man named Joseph was called out positively for his actions; would I be called out positively for my actions?
My first thought whenever I read this passage is to wonder what the typical American thinks of it, but that’s just a snide (and hopefully unfair) thing to think. Many (most?) Americans have been raised with fuzzy notions of what “Communism” and “Socialism” are, with the only thing they know for sure is that these things are bad. So… obviously that’s not what is being pushed here! And it’s true that Communism and Socialism hadn’t even been thought of, by this point, so no, the early Church wasn’t Socialist.
But… even though I’d like to give Americans the benefit of the doubt, pretty much every American preacher I’ve ever heard talking about this passage has read the second half of verse 32, “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had,” and then quickly clarified to their listeners, “Now that doesn’t mean that there was no such thing as personal property in the early Christian Church!” But I want to say to them, “Yeah, but… doesn’t it, though? Because that’s what it says.”
I’m not saying—at all—that we should all be Socialists, or even that that’s what Acts 4 teaches. But I am saying that too strong of a knee-jerk reaction against something that might be perceived as “Socialist” might prevent us from seeing what actually was happening in the early Church. We can shape our modern society in any way we want, but when we read about the early Church in Acts 4, we see people who didn’t claim their possessions were their own, but shared everything they had. It’s uncomfortable to me to see Americans falling all over themselves to say, “the passage doesn’t mean that,” to the point where they may be taking away from what the passage actually does say.
One interesting phrase I note is right in the middle of that passage:
And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.
The passage is talking about the fact that all of the believers are sharing their possessions with one another—ahem Socialism ahem—but the passage doesn’t say there were no needy persons among them because they all shared, it says there were no needy persons among them because of God’s grace.
I think this is another example of the way the Bible always talks about how God works and how His people work: He works through us. In the early Church, in the days of this passage, there were no needy people because God was gracious to them. He showed that grace through the actions of His people; His people shared their possessions because of God’s grace; people who might otherwise have been needy weren’t because they were helped out by their fellow believers because their fellow believers were showing God’s grace.
It’s an example of God acting and God’s people acting, in a way that can’t be pulled apart or separated. It’s not either/or: it’s not either God doing something or His people doing something. It’s God doing something through His people, the way He almost always does things.
Yes there are miracles in the Bible but those are rare, and shouldn’t be counted on by Christians: we should be doing God’s work, and allowing Him to work through us, which is usually the way He works.