Being Generous: Acts 4: 32-37

Genre

The book of Acts is an historical narrative meant to communicate theological truth through the events of the life of the early church. It is to be read "vertically," that is, in light of the author's intentions for that work alone. Further, as descriptive narrative it recounts what actually took place, not necessarily what should take place for all Christians. Prescriptive notions can be teased out of the narrative, however, if either 1) the text tells us explicitly that such occurrences are normative, or 2) there seems to be a consistent pattern of events from which we can infer the author's intention that this pattern be taken as normative.

Observations about the Passage

Literary

There seems to be a causation between the actions of the believers in v. 32 and the great power and grace that followed in v. 33. The cause was either the great unity of the believers (?one heart and soul?) or the community ownership of property, or both. We see a particular example of this largess in Barnabas, the Levite (v.36-37).

Luke also seems to be making a continuity connection between the multiple occurrences of statements of the unity of the believers (see "Grammatical" below) with dramatic manifestations of the work of the Spirit, e.g. v. 33 (note 2:2-4; 2:43, 47; 4:31; and 5:12, 14), where the first is an explanation of the second.

Grammatical

There is a continuity in the surrounding chapters where some form of the phrase "?one heart and soul?" (v. 32) occurs five times in Luke's account of the first formative years of the church (?one mind," 1:14; "one mind," 2:46; "one accord," 4:24; and "one accord," 5:12). The emphasis here is the strong sense of unity and community experienced by the early church.

Historical

The events of chapter 4 follow soon after Pentecost when thousands were added to the number of believers in a very short time (2:41, 47). Since so many of those believers were Jews from foreign lands (2:9-10) who stayed to benefit from the apostles? teaching and fellowship (2:42), the hospitality needs were immense and sharing of possessions was common (2:44).

Cultural

The obligation of hospitality?providing food and protective refuge?was a sacred duty to an oriental host. Inns were scarce and, even in Jerusalem, wholly inadequate to provide for the multitude of new believers lingering in that city after Pentecost. This would not only apply to sojourners in general, but especially to the "household of the faith" (Galatians 6:10).

Interpretation

The conclusion that this passage teaches a kind of "Christian communism" is flawed because it confuses what element of the text is normative. Yes, the Christians in Jerusalem immediately following Pentecost "had all things in common" (2:44) because there was a pressing reason to do so: the multitudes of new believers sequestered in Jerusalem combined with the sacred obligation of their hosts to provide for the sojourners. This required an immediate and radical response?a pooling of all resources so that all needs were met. This condition was not repeated elsewhere in the narrative, so there is no pattern making normative the practice of community ownership of property.

Another pattern, however, is in evidence: the unity of spirit and purpose of the disciples constantly mentioned by Luke and clearly paired with magnificent outpourings of God's Spirit. This profound sense of unity in community expressed itself in a couple of different ways. One of them is the focus of our passage (gracious and sacrificial hospitality). The great power and grace manifested by God (v. 33) was not a result of Christian communism. Rather, it was the result of the unity of the believers that manifest itself in great liberality towards other believers sojourning in Jerusalem at the time.

The point of this passage is to teach the (prescriptive) importance of the unity of believers of "one heart and soul" (v. 32), to give an example (descriptive) of what that looks like in one instance, and to show the release of the spiritual power of God when believers operate in one accord.

Application

Though this passage does not obligate the church to redistribute and equalize the wealth of its members, there is no question that God is interested in voluntary generosity when needs are presented. We shouldn't be storing up our treasure when others?especially brethren?have genuine and pressing needs.

As a more benign example of this, just today I met with a brother who wanted to take his kids fishing. I had tackle; he did not. Instead of selling it to him, I gave it to him. It was excess for me anyway. Now neither of us is in want.

It seems we must go much further than this, though. Not only should we be financially providing for our own so as not to be a burden on others (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12), but we should live below our means so we can give to others of genuine need out of our excess. A monthly gift to a Christian feeding program for the poor would be a place to start. Being alert for specific needs that arise in our local body and giving to that would be another, as would regularly practicing hospitality by sharing our homes with others, including strangers. This last might even get us a visit from an angel (Heb. 13:2)!

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Melinda Penner

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