At various places throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Luke scatters brief progress reports on the church. I included one of them in our reading last week, verses 12-16 of chapter 5. By my count, there are nine of them, and they get shorter as the book goes along. They serve to show us how the message and ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ are spreading across the Roman world. The first few go beyond that to give us snapshots of the life of the church so that when Luke says in Acts 16:5, just to pick one, that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers,” we understand what that really means. It’s not just that their attendance was up, it’s that they were living boldly in the way that we see here in Acts 2 and Acts 4.
That’s important, because it’s easy to talk about a strong church, or a Spirit-filled church, without having any real idea what that means; and since nature abhors a vacuum, that void of understanding will fill quickly with worldly ideas of strength and goodness. What’s a strong church? One that has a lot of members and a lot of money. What’s a Spirit-filled church? I don’t know, but those people seem to be nice, moral people, so I guess they must be Spirit-filled. But this is not what God has in mind. If you want to know if a person or a church is filled by the Holy Spirit, look at the fruit—how are they living, what are they producing, what qualities characterize their way of life?
What we see in Acts 2 and 4 is a church that has chosen its world, and it isn’t this one. Everything they have in this world, they’ve placed at the disposal of the world to come. They had one common goal, and so as Acts 4:32 tells us, “They were one in heart and mind”—or, better, in heart and soul. This doesn’t mean they never disagreed, or even that they never fought; we know they fought. Disagreement and conflict are inevitable—and more, they’re often necessary for growth. Because we’re all limited, we need our different perspectives in order to make good decisions. Real unity isn’t just superficial agreement, it’s something deeper.
The loyalty of the early Christians to one another was complete. Their commitment to each other was absolute. They spent great amounts of time together in worship at the temple and in fellowship over meals; they enjoyed each other’s company; they sought to really know and care for one another; and they valued each other as much as they valued themselves. Like the Three Musketeers, it was all for one and one for all.
Because they were one in heart and soul, they were also one in treasure. Luke hammers this home: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; . . . no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Because of this, “there were no needy persons among them,” for “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Whatever belonged to one belonged to all, and so they were characterized by extravagant generosity, sharing everything they owned with those who needed help.
This seems like a radical statement, but it shouldn’t surprise us. After all, don’t we tell the boaster, “Put your money where your mouth is”? If you aren’t willing to put your money on the line, it’s only words. In the same way, any statement of our unity is only words if we aren’t willing to put our money on the line. If there’s a limit to what you’re willing to give up for another person, you aren’t truly united with them. Giving—not just a little here and there, but the willingness to give sacrificially—is unity in action. It is, in fact, an acid test of unity.
Now, it’s important to realize that this wasn’t forced on anyone; that’s the difference between the apostles and Karl Marx. Peter’s rebuke to Ananias in Acts 5:4 makes that clear: people had the choice to sell their property or keep it, to keep their money or give it away. If this sort of giving had been required, it would have been just another false unity. These gifts were true gifts, freely given; people of the church offered their money to the apostles as they saw the need, and as the Spirit led.
Because the early church was filled with the Spirit, there was deep unity among them, which expressed itself in a willingness to give sacrificially to others. Because of that unity and willingness to give, the ministry of the church was marked by great power and the church was filled with grace. This point doesn’t come through in the NIV, but the NASB translation of Acts 4 brings it out: “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.” That “for” is an important little word. To put it another way, because they were truly unified, because they gave freely of what they had, because there was not a needy person among them, therefore their lives were filled with God’s grace and their ministry was filled with his power.
That doesn’t just mean the miracles, either. Jesus’ disciples weren’t only full of the power to heal, they were full of the power of the grace of God. They were a joyful group, marked by their “glad and generous hearts.” They were delightful people to be with because they were so full of the goodness of God, it just spilled out of them. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work, because he’s the Spirit of joy. The closer we draw to God, the deeper our joy will be, even as pains and struggles come.
Michael Card captured this promise when he wrote, “There is a joy in the journey; there’s a light we can love on the way. There is a wonder and wildness to life, and freedom for those who obey.” Freedom through obedience. Strange concept, but it’s true, because our obedience is to live in God. If we do that, he fills us with his Holy Spirit, and the Spirit lifts us up and carries us along. His joy is our strength. That’s why Isaiah 40:31 says that those who wait on the Lord will soar on eagles’ wings.
Now, to fly, you have to keep the weight below a certain level, and to really soar, you have to cut out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. When we think about it that way, we can see something we usually miss. We normally read these passages this way: the disciples, or the Israelites of David’s day, had to give up a lot, but it was worth it because they got something better in exchange. That’s not the point. As I quoted Jim Elliot a few weeks ago, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose”—but not because it’s a good trade. It’s because—as Elliot understood, as the disciples knew—when you do that, you win on both ends. When you do that, you’re letting go of some of the weight that keeps you earthbound. Generosity is joy is freedom: the freedom to soar in the Spirit of God, untethered by the things of this world.
When we cling to those things we cannot keep—money, reputation, security, power, plans, agendas, success, whatever it might be—we have to hold on tight; and as I learned from Gert Kumiin another context, when you tense your hands like that, that tension spreads throughout your whole body. When you grip the things of this world, tension grips you, filling you with anxiety, worry and fear, making you a prisoner of those things you desire—a prisoner of yourself, in truth. You have no power, because all your power is tied up in maintaining that tension and keeping you bound. When you open your hands and release it all to God, all of that changes. In that, you find the freedom to let the Spirit of God change you, and work through you to change the world.