Not a Needy Person Among Them
On the surface, it seems rather odd that the author of the book of Acts, Luke, would thrice in three chapters describe how the earliest Christians demonstrated unusual generosity toward their fellow believers. Immediately after thousands of souls are added to the LORD’s kingdom in Acts 2, we find they “had all things in common” (v.44) and were even sacrificial in their efforts to provide for one another. That makes sense to us, the disciples cared for one another and took care of each other’s needs. In our minds, it’s time to move on to a new topic.
So then why mention very nearly the same thing in Acts 4? “…and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (v.32b) And then again in v.34-35! “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.” As is often the case in scripture, important concepts or phrases are repeated not by accident, but for emphasis.
The context that surrounds Acts 4.32-35 is crucial to understanding Luke’s point in emphasizing the generosity of the believers. We know that the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was not an accident or coincidence. Instead of God’s glory and presence coming to fill a physical tabernacle or temple (Ex. 40.34; 2 Ch. 5.24; etc.), the Holy Spirit would dwell within the worshippers themselves, as Peter describes by quoting Joel 2: “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” (Joel 2.28; Acts 2.17). After all, isn’t it interesting that Luke does not tell us specifically which house in Jerusalem the apostles were in when the Holy Spirit came upon them? This new Temple would not be a place, but rather a People. Peter would go on to describe Christians in these very same terms: as being the temple of God. “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2.5)
Luke will then go on to highlight the differences between the new Temple, established in the hearts of the believers in Jesus Christ, and the former Temple. There is a symmetry between the events that happen from the end of chapter 2 to chapter 5 which seems to center around Acts 4.32-35. In the beginning and end of this section we find Christians (although not officially called so until Acts 11.26) daily attending the temple together and meeting in their homes. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes…” (Acts 2.46a) “And every day, in the temple and from house to house,” (Acts 5.42a).
Furthermore, we also find Peter and the rest of the apostles twice performing miracles in the Temple courts, with the healing of the lame man in the beginning of Acts 3 and “many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico” (Acts 5.12). Twice we find the apostles taken into custody by the enraged Jewish leadership and interrogated for their beliefs (Acts 4.1-21; Acts 5.17-42). Twice we see Peter and the apostles give a defense for their faith and their actions, and twice they are released from custody after being warned not to continue further. Notice that each of these falls on either side of Acts 4.32-35, forming a symmetry meant to focus on something important.
So what’s so important about caring for the poor among them?
“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deut. 15.5)
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deut. 15.7-8)
In short, God’s chosen people, His Kingdom, His spiritual Temple, were fulfilling what the nation of Israel had failed to do. The consistent drumbeat of accusations that exist throughout the prophets nearly always mention one fact: the Israelites and their leadership oppressed the poor. “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" declares the Lord GOD of hosts.” (Isaiah 3.15), “Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the guiltless poor” (Jeremiah 2.34a), and “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16.49).
Providing for the poor among them was supposed to have been done “in the place that he will choose, to make His name dwell there” (Deut. 14.23), which was first the Tabernacle, and then the Temple! By the time we reach the book of Acts, the glory of the LORD had long departed the Temple because of the faithlessness of the Israelites (Ezekiel 10-11), and at the death of Jesus the veil of the temple rends in two (Matthew 27.51), effectively ending any attempt to worship there. But in Acts 4, we see the spiritual Temple of God, the believers in Jesus Christ, generously and gladly performing what God had intended His people to do since the beginning. Furthermore, we find them engaged in diligent prayer to God (Acts 4.23-31), and refusing to tolerate sin (Acts 5.1-11).
So what is the point? The new Temple of God, built on “the stone that was rejected” (Acts 4.11) had now been established in Jerusalem. The presence of this Temple would not be seen as the Temple or the Tabernacle had been, but it would be visible in the actions and attitudes of the “living stones” (1 Peter 2.5), the believers in Jesus Christ. The caring for those who were poor among them was supposed to be a telltale sign of God’s people long before they ever reached the Promised Land, and it is that which identified these believers in Jesus Christ truly as God’s people. It is this willingness to care for the poor among themselves that would mark Christians going forward from this point (Acts 11.27-30; Galatians 2.10; Romans 15.25-27; 2 Corinthians 8.1-2). Men and women would encounter God’s healing and generosity not by physical attendance, but by interaction with those who wore the Name of their Father and did His will, which God Himself said would happen long before:
“What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty." (2 Corinthians 6.16-18)