"Admirable but impractical"--that's what human beings through the ages have said about the communal ideal. Still, we wonder, Is there a way we can live together in harmony which at the same time liberates us from selfishness and assures us of support when we need it? Luke says a resounding "Yes!" and points us to a corporate salvation blessing: the church's common life.
Luke shows that the answer to the church's prayer (vv. 29-30) includes much grace . . . upon them all (v. 33), which results in a Spirit-given unity with practical outworking. All the believers (literally, "the congregation of those who believed," or the church in its corporate totality; compare 6:2, 5; 15:12, 30; see also 2:44) are one in heart and mind (kardia kai psyche mia). This phrase masterfully brings together both the Greek ideal of friendship--"a single soul [mia psyche] dwelling in two bodies" (Aristotle in Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers 5.20)--and the Old Testament ideal of total loyalty (1 Chron 12:39, note Hebrew and LXX; compare Deut 6:5; 10:12). From this unity comes a mindset. Each member chooses not to look at his possessions as first and foremost his own. Rather, he chooses to see them as first of all available for common use.
Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist, observed, "We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have to a common stock, and communicate to every one in need" (Apology 1.14:2-3). This is where the common life begins, with the heart and soul and a mindset (see Lk 9:24; 12:19, 22; 14:26; 12:34; Acts 2:46).
The caring fellowship continues to be a witnessing fellowship. The apostles bear witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (1:8, 22; 3:15; 5:32). They do so with great power, not miracles (as Bruce 1990:160) or the new life of the believing community (as Longenecker 1981:311), but effectiveness: their "utterances cannot be ignored by the hearers but force them to decision either for or against the gospel" (Marshall 1980:108). On all (the whole congregation, not just the apostles; this comment prepares for v. 34) there is much grace, God's sustaining favor (Haenchen 1971:231; compare Lk 2:40; not the favor of the people, as Kistemaker 1990:174, nor a spirit of generosity, see Stott 1990:106). Then and now it is God's power that makes the church effective in witness and in depth of fellowship.
Luke begins with the end result: There were no needy persons among them--an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4. God's fulfillment of this covenant promise in the church demonstrates not only his faithfulness but also the fact that the church is the true Israel. In a voluntary, periodic fashion those with means sell real estate or houses, bring the proceeds and lay them at the apostles' feet.
Does this point to a customary practice in property transfer (Lake and Cadbury 1979:49), to an educational context (compare 22:3; Williams 1985:79) or to a political context (compare 2:35)? Whatever the background, it is clear that the apostles have full authority over the fund. As a development of the ad hoc arrangements of Acts 2:45 (see comment there), a common fund for the poor has been created, and the rich in the congregation keep it continuously supplied.
Jerusalem's tenuous local economy and Palestine's famines and political unrest placed some members in economic need. The displacement of the Galilean apostles and other members of the church's central core away from their normal means of livelihood, together with social and economic persecution, necessitated a ministry to meet economic needs (Longenecker 1981:310).
Should we see this process as normative for God's people in all times and all places? Whether because of Luke's supposedly unhistorical, idealized picture (L. T. Johnson 1981:129) or its supposed failure and lack of precedent in other churches (compare 11:27-30; 24:17; Rom 15:26) or the presence of examples that are really exceptions to the rule (Longenecker 1981:311), many have said this passage gives no normative teaching about structuring the church's common life. We must understand, however, that the structure Luke points to is not a coercive communism that dispenses with private property through once-for-all expropriation to a common fund. Luke never presents the system as a failure but rather sees all churches as living out not only their responsibility for the poor (Acts 20:35) but also their interdependence through caring for one another. The Jerusalem church just happened to be on the receiving end most of the time. Seen in this light, what Luke calls for is fully normative.
With a mindset of unity we will view our economic resources as available to meet others' needs. We will voluntarily, periodically supply our local assembly's common fund for the poor. Such a structure should not bind the Spirit's prompting to be generous as we encounter various needs, nor should it become a matter of obligation. If grace is on us, we will be gracious to others.
Joseph, nicknamed Barnabas by the apostles, is a positive example. Luke translates the nickname for us: Son of Encouragement, that is, one who habitually manifests this quality (Bruce 1990:160). Barnabas is a "bridge person," bringing diverse parties together so that the cause of Christ advances and both older and newer believers are encouraged (9:27; 11:22-23, 25; 15:3, 12, 25; 30-35). For Luke he embodies the fully integrated life of external witness and care for the church's internal needs of "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (11:24). We learn he is a Levite, from the tribe of priests and temple staff. He is from Cyprus, which had a large Jewish population in the first century A.D. (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 282). He has a field suitable for growing crops; he sells it and brings the proceeds to the apostles.
Admirable but impractical? No, admirable and doable when we keep in step with the Spirit. Where are the Barnabases for today's church?