Acts Lesson Eight: 4:32-37 – Unified Believers

32 Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.  33 And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs. 36 Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (HCSB)

Although this is a short passage to study, four main themes will be discussed.

  • Unity of believers – verse 32.
  • Evangelism – verse 33.
  • Generosity and care for each other – verses 34-35.
  • Introduction of Barnabas – verses 36-37.

What we see in these six verses is a snapshot of what the early church looked like.

Verse 32 – The unity of the believers.

In a previous lesson covering part of chapter two, we studied how the early church was involved in studying Scripture and prayer, both corporate and personal prayer. Now we see that the church was unified in thought. I believe that because of the characteristics outlined in chapter two, we see the characteristic of unity in this passage. When a group of people dig into Scripture together and spend large segments of time in prayer together, it leads to a spirit of unity and togetherness that would not be found if study and prayer were absent from the corporate body of Christ. 

What makes the description of the early church even more remarkable is that it was made up of sinners, just like you and me! They were no different than any modern follower of Jesus. We may think this level of unity and trust is impossible in today’s world, and honestly, that thought challenges my faith, but Scripture proves that sinners, albeit redeemed, can be unified in thought, deed, and word towards each other. That thought alone should give us hope as we see the world around us becoming increasingly chaotic. 

The phrase “were of one heart and mind” is deeper than the surface understanding of the phrase. The original Greek reads, “one in heart and soul,” and leads to a couple of conclusions regarding the phrase. 

  • They were united in heart. They had unbreakable emotional bonds with each other. They loved each other with unconditional love.
  • They were thinking in unity. They had the same theology. There was no discord or disagreement with activities or practices within the fledgling church. They concentrated on what was important; evangelism and loving each other with agape love.
  • They were experiencing what Jesus prayed for before His crucifixion. John 17:20-23 2I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. 21 May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. 22 I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. 23 I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Not only were they unified, but they were also generous to and cared for each other. This is an extremely rare quality in the world today, even in Christian circles, where many are only looking out for themselves, either implicitly or explicitly. Often to get something done, the cooperation of others is required. Cooperation requires that people are treated well; otherwise, they probably won’t cooperate. It’s also important to keep them happy. Happy people who are treated well are often more cooperative. However, often the underlying motivation is not generosity; it is selfishness. We want something to happen, so we “use” others to that end. As a Christian, we should never forget what God has done for each of us, we’ve been forgiven, and our nature has been changed. The early church realized that God had been generous to them, far beyond what they deserved, and they extended that generosity to those around them. 

Verse 33

Now we have a sudden shift from the unity and generosity of the church to evangelism and teaching. We should ponder why this shift occurs. I believe it signifies a critical element of what is expected of the church, evangelism and spreading the Gospel.

Evangelism, as understood in biblical characteristics, is a concept that seems to be fading in some segments of the modern Christian church. The focus of the early church was on going and spreading the Gospel message. Too often today, the focus is on “come and see” the church. To make this method effective, the church needs to devise ways to attract people to church. The labels attached to these types of churches are “attractional” or “seeker sensitive.” The church tries to find ways to make the church “attractive” or cater to the whims of those they are trying to bring into the spiritual body of Christ. When looked at honestly, the Gospel is not an “attractive” message as it is challenging. It doesn’t promise anything except for persecution. Oh wait, it does promise eternal security, but we need to be faithful through the persecution. It’s not a message that sinners would be excited to follow until they’re brought to their knees by the weight of their sinful nature and realize they need redemption.

Francis Chan, in his book Letters to the Church, conducts a simple exercise with church leaders. He asks them to list all the things that people expect when they come to church. The list often includes:

  • A really good service.
  • Strong, age-specific ministry.
  • A certain type of music/volume/number of songs.
  • A professionally polished sermon.
  • Convenient parking.
  • A clean building.
  • Coffee, maybe even a cafe within the church.
  • Childcare.

He then asks them to list the commands that God gave to the church from Scripture.

  • Love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12
  • Visit orphans and widows. James 1:27
  • Make disciples. Matthew 28:19.
  • Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2.

If we asked the same question to those we know in church or even ourselves, would our answer look like the first list or the second?

The early church knew what God commanded it to do. The modern church too often resembles what we want in church and not what Scripture commands. The church needs to have an outward focus if it is to be a biblical church. The “country club” mentality church is not a church that honors God or follows His commands.

At the conclusion of the verse, we see how the church was blessed for its faithfulness. It says, “and great grace was on all of them.” I don’t know about you, but I always want to be part of a church that experiences great grace. There is no church without evangelism. Jesus didn’t command His followers to plant churches. He commanded them to make disciples. A church was a natural outgrowth of effective evangelism. We see the same concept in Paul’s missionary journeys. He would go to a town and share the Gospel. As people would come to faith, he would spend additional time there, often raising up leaders (elders) for the new flock before moving on. His primary focus was on making disciples. Once that was complete, a new church was birthed.

Verses 34-35

When we read these two verses, we need to understand that selling all of one’s possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the Apostles are descriptive and not prescriptive. This means that although they describe a characteristic of the early church, they are not a specific command for us today. There are other passages in the New Testament that outline the principles of Christian giving, with 2 Corinthians 8-9 being one good example. Now that the discussion of descriptive versus prescriptive is finished let’s look at these two verses in some detail.

The first part of verse 34 illustrates an Old Testament concept found in Deuteronomy 15:4a There will be no poor among you. If Israel would keep God’s commands, then God would bless them, and there wouldn’t be any poor among them. The early church viewed the passage in Deuteronomy as describing the ideal final age when Israel would be entirely faithful to God, and there would be no poverty in the land. The early Christians viewed themselves as the people of God in the final times, seen in Acts 2:17, they were experiencing God’s blessings, Acts 4:33, and were striving to reach the ideal of the people of God with no poor in their midst. 

The land and houses described as being sold were not their primary residence or plot of land. This may not be readily apparent, but when looked at in the context of the passage, it would make no sense if it was referring to their only house. If they sold that, then they would become one of the needy. Instead, they liquidated their “extra” resources and used that to help those in need. 

Clarification is needed for the phrase, “laid them at the apostles’ feet.” This was not some act of worship towards the apostles or payment for the leaders of the church. But it was a gesture of submission to each other. The twelve apostles were appointed by Jesus to continue His mission. The submission and giving of funds were not to them but to the one they represented. To lay the gifts at the feet of the apostles was to give them to Jesus. This was likely a role that they didn’t relish, and we read later in Acts 6:2, where the financial responsibility in the church was handed over to a new position created by the Apostles. We would know that position today as the role of a deacon.

There are some who have labeled the practices described here as “Christian Communism.” However, that is completely misunderstanding the nature of how the church worked and the evil of political communism we see in the world today. Let’s compare the two.


Political CommunismChurch in Acts
Required actionsMandated by the state.Completely voluntary.
MotivationPower and greed.Love.
OwnershipState owned.Private ownership.

Private ownership continues in New Testament Scripture, with another example in Acts 12:12, which mentions the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament Epistles, there are numerous accounts of churches meeting in the homes of believers. A proper understanding of the early church would dispel any notions that it resembled political communism in its design and practice.

Verses 36-37

The final two verses in chapter four may seem out of place with the introduction of Barnabas. However, there are several reasons for Luke to introduce him at this point. 

  • Barnabas’ action of selling one of his properties and bringing all the proceeds to the Apostles was a demonstration of the widespread activity of the church described in the preceding two verses.
  • His action could have produced envy in Ananias and Sapphira, leading them to make a show of their selling land and giving a portion of the sale while secretly keeping the rest for themselves. 
  • Barnabas plays a significant role in the early church and is mentioned repeatedly in Acts as well as in Colossians. 
    • Barnabas was an encouragement to and supported Paul. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, many of the Christians didn’t believe his conversion was genuine. They thought he was still plotting to arrest and kill Christians. Barnabas interceded and became an advocate for Paul’s acceptance into the early church.
      • Acts 9:26-27 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.
      • Acts 11:25 Then he  went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
      • Acts 13:2 As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”
    • Barnabas also encouraged John Mark after his failure on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas.
      • Acts 15:36-39 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. 39 There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.
      • Colossians 4:10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark,  Barnabas’s  cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him).

As we reflect on this passage, especially the ideas of selling and giving, we need to understand that these ideas are descriptive and not prescriptive for each believer. They describe general concepts or characteristics of Christians and black and white rules. It should be viewed in light of our attitude towards each other and our attitude towards wealth. If we understand that everything we have comes from God, then we also understand it doesn’t really belong to us in the first place. We have stewardship responsibility over it, and we are expected to use these blessings wisely. When a Christian brother or sister is in need, it should be second nature on our part to help when and where we can. 

When we place this idea side-by-side with cultural norms, we clearly see that the church needs to be countercultural. The church (people) need to be united in purpose, thought, and action. There are five biblical principles for a unified body of Christ.

  • Each member must crucify themselves. Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
  • Leaders should endeavor to make unity a priority. Ephesians 4:3 diligently keeping the unity  of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.
  • Believers should meet often and share openly. 1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
  • Christian fellowship is spiritual unity in Christ. Spiritual disciplines enable us to have spiritual unity in Christ.
    • Worship.
    • Reading Scripture.
    • Prayer.
    • Fasting.
    • Serving.
  • Strive for agreement over the course of action. See Acts 15 for an example of this. Don’t rush to reach a result. Reach the result in God’s time.

Applications

  • Do you strive for unity with your Christian brothers and sisters, or are you the type that looks for conflict? We should strive for unity in purpose while not letting the ways of the world seep into the church. Conflict should only be started when the church or members of the church are clearly against what Scripture says.
  • Do you consider your possessions, money/stuff/time, yours or Gods? Your answer to this question will shape your actions regarding your possessions.
  • Are you involved in evangelism, either directly or in a supporting role? In the midst of our often busy lives, we are still called to share the Gospel.
  • Are you known as a son/daughter of encouragement or one of discouragement? We can be a person who builds others up, or we can be a person that tears others down. We control our actions in this area.

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