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Acts 4:32-37 by Robert Dean
Acts is a transition book. It is a narrative description of some very important concepts about the Christian life in the Church age, but it is not a prescription. We see the transition from the Age of Israel to the Church Age. We see the dispensation of the Mosaic Law transition into the dispensation of Grace. And we see the transition of the church from mainly Jewish to Gentile.

In this lesson we learn the Biblical concept of money, labor, and profit. We find out if the Bible says that "money is the root of all evil" and why the early Christians in Acts sold all their resources and layed them at the apostles' feet. Is this the example of what Christians are to do today?
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 0 mins 29 secs

The Bible on Capitalism, Communism, and Socialism. Acts 4:32-37

In this section we face a passage that is perhaps one of the two or three passages in Scripture that most people will go to to try to argue and show that the Bible really does support some view of socialism or communal living. What we actually find is just the opposite.

At the core of the Mosaic Law's theology of money is the idea of property, property rights and ownership rights. When we look at the Ten Commandments one of the commandments is, "Thou shalt not steal." That would be meaningless unless people have the right to own property and to keep it for their own personal use, and to determine how to use that property however they wish. Other people do not have the right to take that property. So that implies the theology of property rights which you have running throughout the Mosaic Law. There are also provisions in the Mosaic Law related to inheritance rights. There is a lot said in the Mosaic Law related inheritance rights, the accumulation of wealth and property, and how that is passed on from one generation to the next.

While there were taxes in the Mosaic Law, called tithes, and Jesus also in the New Testament recognizes the right of government to tax, the Bible never authorizes property tax. What property tax does is act as if the ultimate owner of the land is the government. Biblically speaking the ultimate owner of the land and property is God. So property taxes are an intrusion upon divine prerogatives and the state arguing that they are the owner of the land over against the people. Property taxes also are an assault on the accumulation, preservation and the passing on of wealth from generation to generation. And a study of the inheritance laws in the Mosaic Law reveal that what God intended as a nation prospered was for wealth to not only be accumulated but for it to grow within a family from generation to generation. So there is not an antagonism in the Scripture towards the accumulation of great amounts of wealth. What we do find is a criticism of the mentality that goes after wealth as a source of meaning, value and happiness, and that is described usually as covetousness.

When we get into the New Testament it does not contradict the economic principles of the Mosaic Law at all, but it transforms those laws in the Old Testament which were designed for a theocratic nation to a broader universal context because now there is no longer going to be a theocratic nation of Israel but God is going to be working through a new universal group of people, the church. So there is a transfer of the nature of these laws related to money because of this new entity, the church, which is now trans-national. But in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the one thing that stands out is that money and the use of money and wealth is a personal responsibility, not a government responsibility.

In the Old Testament, when we look at the prophets, never was the government accused of not taking care of the poor—unless what was happening was that the tithes mandated by the Mosaic Law that were taken every three years for the care of the widows and orphans was being abused. The government was accused and condemned for misusing those funds. But as we go from the Old Testament to the New Testament the government has the right to tax but the entity that is being judged on the misuse of money is always the individual. The emphasis in the Bible from the creation of man in Genesis chapter two on is always on individual responsibility. That doesn't contradict our compassion and care for those who have misfortunes, those who don't have money, or hose who are on the edges of financial collapse. But that is another principle. Those responsibilities for care and concern and compassion to be personal and what we see in Scripture and in history is when governments take over those responsibilities to take care of people individuals give up their responsibilities and people have less care and concern for those who are elderly and those who are less fortunate. It is always the trend. The more responsibility we give up individually the less responsibility we feel for ourselves and for one another.

Scripture also has various things to say about money in terms of its use and priority. Money in and of itself is not evil or sinful, it is the mental attitude and the use. Jesus said: Matthew 6:19-21 NASB "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." If the focus is on the accumulation of wealth then there is nothing wrong with that but it shouldn't be the ultimate focus. Because then it will always crowd God out and there is always the threat that money and possessions become a god unto themselves.

1 Tim 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil…" This doesn't say money is evil; money is morally neutral. It is the love of money. The Greek word there is philaguria [filaguria]. The first syllable is philos which has to do with more of an emotional attraction to something, so it is a synonym for greed.  "… and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." The pursuit of money as the source of happiness, stability and hope is the path to self-induced misery.  

Speaking of the latter days. 2 Timothy 3:2 NASB "For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money…" It is that focus on money that then becomes a root for the spread of evil in society. "… boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy."

Luke 12:15 NASB "Then He said to them, 'Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed [covetousness]; for not {even} when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.'" This is really important for understanding what happens in Acts chapter five. Life isn't our possessions. In fact, Jesus will go on to say that they need to seel their possessions at times.

Colossians 3:5 NASB "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry." Covetousness and greed is idolatry; it becomes religious because you are replacing God as your priority in life to job, money, and that as the source of stability and happiness.

The value of labor and profit: 2 Thessalonians 3:10 NASB "… if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." Most people want to emphasize giving to the poor. This is a Christian value. But this is a Christian value also: if people won't work, they won't eat. And this is exhibited throughout the Mosaic Law. In the Mosaic Law there was a provision that was to be made that a farmer harvested his grain he was to leave some grain in the field. He wasn't to leave ten per cent in the field and take it to the welfare market so that it would then be distributed to the poor while they sat at home as couch potatoes. They still had to work for it. They had to go out in the fields and glean for the grain that was left in the fields. It wasn't free. God was the originator of the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In all the provisions that are given in the Mosaic Law there is a responsibility of labor to get that which is that provision.

The focus of Proverbs 31 a godly, virtuous wife. Proverbs 31:10 NASB "An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels." So immediately there is a positive value association with a precious jewel to the value of a productive wife. [11] "The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain." She is going to take care of things within her realm of responsibility that enables him to be more productive and to make more money so that they together can be more prosperous. This is how she is a blessing to the home. [12] "She does him good and not evil All the days of her life." [13] She is involved in the labor. "She looks for wool and flax And works with her hands in delight." So she is involved in also bringing profit into the family from her labors. [15] "She rises also while it is still night And gives food to her household And portions to her maidens." So it is because of her work and how she prospers that she is able to take care of those and provide jobs for those around her. [16] "She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard." So she is good at real estate investing. She buys and sells later for a profit, and that is a good thing. So this supports a free market society. What the principles of the Bible support are more consistent with a free market based economic system because that emphasises personal responsibility as opposed to government responsibility.

Proverbs 31:17 NASB "She girds herself with strength And makes her arms strong. [18] She senses that her gain is good; Her lamp does not go out at night." She is industrious. [19] "She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hands grasp the spindle. [20] She extends her hand to the poor, And she stretches out her hands to the needy." She is not just accumulating wealth for herself but she recognizes that as God has blessed her with financial resources then she has a responsibility to use that to help those less fortunate. She doesn't say the government needs to tax me more so that it can use my money to help the poor. It is individual responsibility, not government responsibility. 

In Acts 4:32-35 we have a general description and also part of the response to the prayer that they had uttered in vv. 24-31. Acts 4:32  NASB "And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one {of them} claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them." This isn't mandated; it is not required. It was something that came out of their own desire for the Lord. So we have this description of power that God gives to the apostles and their authority as indicated through the signs and wonders. They gave up their physical possessions, their lands, their houses, and they brought the proceeds and laid them at the apostles' feet. "And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need." There is the summary here of the fact that the apostles are growing in terms of their authority, there are confirmatory miracles, and the people have a unity where they are so devoted to one another that they willingly sell their real possessions and give that to the apostles.

Notice that nowhere else in the New Testament does this happen. Nowhere else in all of the history of Christianity does anyone ever try to do this, it doesn't happen. This is a unique situation and it is related to the fact that Acts is a transition book.

The next thing that happens as one instance of the generosity that they have is that Barnabas, a Levite from the diaspora, had land, sold it, and laid the money at the apostles' feet. That sets up as the introduction to what happens in chapter five. In 5:1-11 we have the episode of Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias and his wife sell a possession (one piece of property) and from that they gain a good price. But they decided they wanted to have the same respect and the same notoriety that they see these other believers having—and remember, nobody mandated that they sell anything or give anything—and they also want the money. Nobody said they had to give it all to the church, so it is all their decision. They are making a series of wrong decisions. Ananias kept back part of the proceeds though he gives money to the church. He doesn't take into account of the apostolic authority and that the prophets of the Old Testament have now been replaced by apostles who are the spokespeople for God and they have a hotline to heaven. So he comes in and lies about it and Peter knows the truth.

Acts 5:3 NASB "But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back {some} of the price of the land?" Some people believe that Ananias was possessed by Satan, but that is not the sense of the language there. His heart is not filled with Satan. Satan influences him to lie and so he lies to the Holy Spirit. Lying to the church which is the body of Christ formed through the baptism of the Holy Spirit is lying to the Holy Spirit. [4] "While it remained {unsold,} did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God. [5] And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it." This was an act of divine discipline, the sin unto death.

But why didn't God do this to everybody else who has lied to the churches? We have to look at the context. It is always important to consider the context. His wife Sapphira isn't with him. She is about to come but before she arrives they wrap Ananias up, carry him out and they bury him. About three hours later his wife Sapphira comes and she has no idea what has happened, and Peter now is going to test her. Acts 5:9 NASB "Then Peter {said} to her, 'Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out {as well.}'" Notice "the Spirit of the Lord," identified back in verse 3 as the Holy Spirit. [10] "And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. [11] And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things."

Then we have an addendum. Acts 5:12 NASB "At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico." Cf. 4:32, "were of one heart and soul; v. 33, "with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." Those two statements bracket this episode. And what are those two statements focusing on? They are focusing on the authority of the apostles now over the church. This isn't about what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, it is about God protecting the authority of the new institution, which is the apostles. They are the new leadership. Acts 5:13 NASB "But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem." So it is all about developing respect for the leadership of the new church. Then in verse 14 there is another progress report. "And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to {their number,} [15] to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. [16] Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed."

This whole section has to be understood as a whole and it is all about establishing the authority of the apostles and establishing this infant organism called the church so that it isn't going to be torn apart by a lot of people who are self-centered and more concerned about their own wellbeing than they are about the context of the church.

Observations to help us understand what is going on here.

1.  We always have to remember that Acts is a transition book. Things are changing, removing from the age of Israel to the church age. There is a transition from the dispensation of the Mosaic Law to the dispensation now of grace. It was transition from a time of incomplete or partial revelation, and incomplete canon, to the time of a complete revelation. Within 60 years of this event the New Testament canon would be completed; revelation would come to a close. The Old Testament was a time which anticipated the coming of the Messiah and this is a time which is announcing that He has come and that of the Jewish people will turn to Him then the times of refreshing will come. So there is an expectation that the kingdom is within historical sight.

2.  Acts is a narrative. It is telling a story of what happened. It is describing what they did; it is not prescribing what they did. It is telling us this happened to the apostles, it is not saying this is what every church needs to do. This is restricted to a unique time within this transitional period. Never again in the New Testament period or in church history would anything remotely resembling these events take place. It wasn't supposed to be duplicated; it was historically conditioned. Another thing that is important to understand is that when they are giving up everything, selling their properties and giving their money to the church, they are not starting a commune. But what happens when you divest yourself of all of your property. You are free; free to move. You can go anywhere.

3.  The most important aspect of this transition is that it is a transition of authority and worship. Up to this point the focal point of worship has been at the temple. Because of that it gave additional value to the real estate in Jerusalem. There were three times a year where the population of Jerusalem would triple as all of the people came to visit to go to the feast days. A lot of people in Jerusalem would just rent out their spare bedrooms to the pilgrims who were coming to town. It gave them an additional source of income and it also gave their property as a source of income additional value. And Jesus told them in Matthew 24:2 and Luke 21:5-36 that it wouldn't be long before judgment would come to Jerusalem and no stone would be left unturned of the temple. If you were to believe Jesus completely and totally and you owned real estate in Jerusalem, would you want to sell now or wait? This is also part of the background. Jesus is building a new organism (the church) that is built on the foundation of the apostles, and so God is showing their authority. When Peter and Ananias and Sapphira had this encounter and the consequences of that were seen the result was that people were afraid. There was respect for the authority.

4.  In the broader context Jesus had predicted that Jerusalem would come under judgment and be destroyed in their generation. So it is not a good idea to own property in Jerusalem. Part of their thinking was that they didn't need to be tied down to their property.

5.  They also lived with an expectation that the kingdom would come soon. There would be judgment and then the kingdom would come. And when Messiah returned to the kingdom all the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be their and the property lines for the different tribal allotments would all be redrawn, so why should they have all their resources bound up in their property when everything was going to change soon? They developed an eternal perspective in relation to their temporal resources.

6.  The authority of the apostles. In the transition the focus is on the authority of the apostles and why it is dangerous to go against their authority, because they are the divine representatives on the earth.

7.  In Acts 4:35 we are told that the people who sold their property brought the proceeds and laid them at the apostles' feet. Then we are told in verse 36 that Barnabas sold land and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. They didn't throw it at the apostles' feet, this is a formal orientation where they are submitting to the authority of the apostles and giving all that they have to the apostles for the apostles to do with as they will. They were recognizing their authority. Then in Acts 5:2 Ananias brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. Three times there is this phrase about laying it at the apostles' feet. This shows that they were submitting to the authority of the apostles. The problem with Ananias was that he wasn't submitting to the authority of the apostles.

8.  Think in terms of the flow of the events in Acts. The events in chapters 3 & 4 happened fairly close to one another, close to the beginning, probably within the first three or four months after the day of Pentecost. These events were probably some six months to a year later, we don't know how much time went by, and then there is going to be some more opposition by the end of chapter five when Peter and John are going to be arrested again. In chapter six something happens. There is all of the wonderful love and unity at the end of chapter four, but what happens in chapter six? Now there is a problem because distributing the money to the poor is not that efficient. The Hellenistic widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of resources. This led to a further development in the administration and they appointed seven men. We are introduced to Stephen who gets arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. He preaches a message of confrontation and condemnation in chapter seven and he is stoned. Then in 8:1 NASB "Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." What happened in Acts chapter five? They all sold their property. Now they get kicked out of town. We see the sovereign hand of God behind all this. This isn't just we are going to give our money to the church. That is part of it but it is broader than that. They understand what God is doing in that time in history and they want to be aligned with God's plan and purpose and not opposing it. This is also a tremendous act of trust.

9.  The transfer of their personal wealth to the apostles and to the church was a manifestation of their trust in God. The apostles represent God. Previous to this time they are trusting in their own personal wealth and possessions to give them stability in difficult times. Now they give it all to the church, a manifestation of their trust in God. They have no trust in the long term stability of Judea because they understand that Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and Judea. They give up financial independence and replace it with total dependence upon God. They are not valuing their physical assets over the spiritual assets; they realize that they need to be laying up treasures in heaven and not treasures on the earth. They trusted God as the ultimate source of their security in life.

10.  The consequences of this. In the immediate future we learn that there was no economic need in Jerusalem and they are taking care of each other. They have all of the financial resources they need to face whatever problems and difficulties they had. But this situation doesn't last. By the time we get to Acts chapter eight there is a persecution that arises and they are scattered. By the time of Paul's second missionary journey, another fifteen years down the road, a famine comes which is part of God's judgment and discipline on Judea at this time. Paul is out establishing churches among the Gentiles and now is collecting money from the Gentile churches to bring back to Jerusalem, and the way the church in Jerusalem survived was on Gentile generosity. So we are seeing the transition from the focus on a Jewish church to a more Gentile church, the transition from Israel to the church at this time in history. Romans 15:25,26, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3. During this time the church in Jerusalem became economically dependent on Gentile churches.

11.  As word of this spread it became a powerful testimony that something radically different was taking place with this community of Christians. They were trusting in God in ways that nobody had seen before. So it was a testimony to the grace of God, His provision for them, and it is also a witness to the dispensational transition.

12.  It is not motivated by any form of utopianism or a reduction in their view of the total depravity of man. They don't have some high view of man where they were all just going to sell everything and go off and live in the desert, and we are all going to take care of each other and bring in a utopia. That is the root of the idea of modern socialism from the beginning of the 19th century. It is always associated with we are going to solve all of man's social ills and social problems, and we are going to bring in social justice by confiscating wealth from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It doesn't work, and that is the essence of both socialism and communism.

13.  This transfer of property, this giving of their wealth, was not mandated by the apostles. It wasn't a requirement; it wasn't an obligation; it was something that was done on a pure private, voluntary basis. What we will see in this issue over what the Bible teaches about how to handle money versus modern views of communism and socialism is this emphasis on collectivism versus private responsibility. That is really the bottom line. Do you believe in individual responsibility or do you believe in collectivism? And what are the implications?