All the believers were of one heart and mind, and they felt that what they owned was not their own; they shared everything they had. … There was no poverty among them, because people who owned land or houses sold them and brought the money to the apostles to give to others in need. (Acts 4:32,34-35 NLT)
How many times have I heard this quoted to support a call for radical change to socialist politics and the goal of eliminating poverty in a society? You can come to that conclusion from this passage only if you ignore two words: “among them.” The radical wealth-sharing reported here and in Acts 2 happened within the fellowship of believers, not in the politics of Jerusalem or Judea.
Notice four things about this passage:
— It assumes property is private. You’ll find no justification here for robinhooding the rich to “share the wealth” with the poor. Those who were sharing the wealth with the poor were sharing their own wealth. They owned it and sold it to others, and the property became the private possession of the new owners.
— The giving was entirely voluntary. The passage says those who were selling property “felt that what they owned was not their own.” Their possessions were in fact their own, but they began to feel differently about them and chose to give generously. There is no indication the apostles commanded the people to sell everything they had and give it to the poor. The people just took Jesus’ teaching to heart.
— The change was radical. Hearts and minds had been transformed. Believers now understood God’s heart for the poor and wanted to do justice for them. They didn’t just give an offering; they shared everything they had.
— The Holy Spirit drove the change. This radical transformation happened because the Holy Spirit fell on the congregation. The congregation had prayed, then the building was shaken and all the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. Talk yourself blue in the face with selfish people; Kingdom justice happens when the Holy Spirit falls.
The radical change we really need isn’t in the political arena. Christians who align themselves with a political campaign to redistribute private wealth are making the same mistake made by the Religious Right they so despise. You won’t accomplish God’s justice — in regard to either poverty or morals — through political means.
The radical change we really need is in the fellowship of believers. How great a miracle would it be for someone to say members of your church were “one heart and mind”? If you think your congregation is that unified, try suggesting that people who have God’s heart for the poor are those who feel their possessions are not their own, who make great personal sacrifice to do justice. Nothing will weed out the nominal Christians more quickly and effectively than confronting the sin of selfishness in the congregation.
The context is that the religious establishment in Jerusalem was beginning to persecute the church. Peter and John had been arrested, threatened, and flogged. The people fell to praying — not for safety, but for boldness, power, and miraculous signs and wonders. What would be more miraculous in your church than members selling their houses and land so poverty in the congregation would be eliminated?
Do not miss the fact that the sacrificial giving was accompanied by powerful witness and God’s great favor on the congregation. Doing justice for the poor — whether in the congregation or in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth — goes hand in hand with powerful proclamation of the good news that God sent his Son to rescue us from the power of sin. Witness without service is only half the mission. So is service without witness.
Do you want to see God’s great favor on you and your congregation? Would you like to see your congregation have one mind and heart? Do you want to see the problem of poverty aggressively attacked? Would you like to see church members bearing powerful witness in the community? Are you concerned that your government will persecute people who live out their faith in public?
Start where the believers in Acts 4 started: “Then all the believers were united as they lifted their voices in prayer.” (v.24)