In the fourth chapter of Acts is a beautiful glimpse of what life was like in the early church. After
- The dramatic events of the day of Pentecost,
- The healing of the lame man, and
- The great response of multitudes in Jerusalem,
- The church faced life in the world of that day — a world of darkness, despair, and death on every side — and met it with a flowing out of the life of Jesus Christ.
Described for us in Acts 4:32:
“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.”
That is ideal Christianity, true, genuine Christianity. Unfortunately, there is also a false Christianity. It came in shortly after this in the early church, and evidence of it seen throughout the book of Acts. Wherever the true church has gone throughout the world, false Christianity has gone right along with it.
Counterfeit Christianity can be recognized externally as a kind of religious club where people, largely of the same social status or class, and bound together by a mutual interest in some religious project or program, meet to advance that particular cause.
But that is a far cry from true Christianity which consists of individuals who share the same divine life, which are made up of all ages, backgrounds, classes, and status levels of society, and who, when meeting, regard themselves as what they are — brothers and sisters in one family. But of that mutual background of love and fellowship they manifest the life of Jesus Christ.
That is what we have here. “The company of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.”
The last word is the key. Community, commonness, everything in common. They were of one heart. Here the word “heart” is used for the human spirit. It denotes the deepest part of our life. It is the unconscious level of existence, the spirit, and an essential part of our nature.
Here were people who, by the Holy Spirit, had been united into one life. They were of one heart. At the very deepest level of their lives they belonged to each other, and that is only possible by means of the Holy Spirit. They did not need to have met someone before to recognize that if he or she is a Christian they belong to each other, they are of the same family, and they always have a vast area in common, and this was true of these people.
But they not only were of one heart, made so by the Holy Spirit to share the life of Jesus together; they also were of one soul. What do you think that means? Most of us read this — “they were of one heart and soul” — as though it were a second way of saying the same thing. But it is not.
The soul is different from the spirit. The soul is the conscious part of life; it is where we consciously live. It consists of the mind and emotions and will, whatever is going on in your thoughts right now. You look like you are listening to me, but it may not be true. Whatever is going on in your thoughts right now is an activity of your soul. Your mind is engaged, your emotions are feeling certain things, your will is making choices; that is the soul. That is the realm of experience.
When it says that these early Christians were gathered together in one — both in spirit and in the soul — it means they not only shared the life of Jesus as a fact of their existence, but they also experienced it. That is what made the difference. Christians everywhere in the world are already united.
Unity is one thing; union is quite something else, and we should never confuse the two. I see no tie whatsoever between church unity and church union. They are not the same thing at all:
Unity exists as a fact, always has, and always will. It is the uniting of the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. But union is quite something else. It is an attempt to achieve an outward appearance of unity without it being real.
But here these early Christians were united together not only in heart (spirit) but also in soul, i.e., they felt it, they experienced it, they emotionally enjoyed their unity. It was part of their daily life.
Here is where the problem lies with many churches today. There is unity; there is a oneness of spirit, but there is no experience of it in the soul.
It is quite possible to come to church and sit together in the pews, united in a physical presence with other Christians, to sing the same hymns and listen to the same message, and relate to God individually, but to have no sense of body life, no sense of belonging to one another.
It is possible to come, week after week, year after year, and never know the people with whom you worship. When that happens, there is no unity in the soul, and this is what our younger generation today, in desperation, is trying to tell us. “There is no soul in your services,” they say to the church at large, “there is no sense of oneness. You don’t belong to each other. You may belong to God, but you don’t belong to each other.” That is what is lacking today, and what the early church so wonderfully possessed.
Not only did they have it, but it manifested itself in the fact that everyone had a new attitude toward things, the material life. “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own,” i.e., his own, exclusively. That is not communism. That is not a forced distribution of goods. It is not an attempt to make everyone give up their material things and redistribute them to others. No, it is a change of attitude, saying,
“Nothing that I possess is mine, for my exclusive use, but everything that I possess is God’s, and therefore it is available to anyone who needs it.”
That is the whole thing. It touched the realm of the body, the physical, and the material. So here were these early Christians, one in heart and soul and body, united together. That is the church, as it ought to be. Wherever that kind of important life occurs there will always be results. It is not accidental than that Dr. Luke begins to trace what these results are. He summarizes them for us. What is the first thing? It is power.
And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 4:33a NKJV)
Power in witness occurs whenever body life is present. God has designed that his church should operate as a body. We all have bodies that we might understand. Without the proper functioning of the bodies in which we live, our life, the life of our spirit, our personality if you like, can never be made manifest to anyone else. It takes the body to make the life visible. That is also true of the church.
If the church of Jesus Christ is not working as a body, then the life that is in it (which is the life of Jesus) can never be seen. It takes the body to make the life visible. Where the body is functioning, then there is always power in witnessing.
That life is the resurrected life of a risen Lord. ” And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” Notice that the power focused on a few men, but it took the whole body of Christians (over five thousand by now), to make that power possible. The twelve apostles gave the witness, but the church was with them participating in their ministry and made the power possible. That is still true today.
The early Christians discovered that, when the life of the body began to flow, there was great power in witnessing. Furthermore, Luke says,
And great grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33b NKJV)
What is grace? That is one of those terms we Christians freely use because we find it in the Scriptures. We say it, but we do not know what it means. There are many words like that. We use them, but we do not know what they’re saying. We use them as a convenient handle for some vague idea we have which we cannot define. But grace means something. What does it mean?
It is a word that describes the enrichment of life that results from the love and power of God. It is enrichment — that is the theme of grace. Somebody has put that in the form of an acrostic:
G — God’s
R — Riches
A — At
C — Christ’s
E – Expense
That is grace, a beautiful definition of it. Great grace was upon these people as the life of the body began to be manifest. They were one in heart and soul and possessions, and then power and grace were released among them. That grace took two particular forms, Dr. Luke tells us. He goes on to describe what this grace was. It appeared in two ways:
1). First, in the sharing of wealth to meet needs, the bearing of one another’s burdens.
“Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ…” (Galatians 6:2 KJV).
The law of Christ is the fundamental expression of Christian living. It is the law of love. “A new commandment,” Jesus said,
“I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you…” (John 13:34).
- To love means to know someone.
- You cannot love someone you do not know.
- Until you know someone, you cannot love them.
- Otherwise what you love is your image of someone.
Our Lord said that love is fundamental to Christian expression. It is the means by which men will know that we are believers that God is true and that Jesus is a Savior.
“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another…” (John 13:35).
The mark, therefore, of Christian success is not activity. It is not how many programs you belong to, or how many clubs you participate in, or how many personal activities you may be involved in, nor is it even morality.
Activity and morality are all a part of Christian expression, but the primary and fundamental expression of Christian living are not that you stop doing things that are wrong. It is that you love one another; that you bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. That is where they began in the early church.
Grace started to do this. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus,” says Paul in another place, “who though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich…” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Grace began to enrich the life of the early church.
Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. (Acts 4:34-35 NKJV)
Again, I remind you, that is not communism. That is not a forced abandonment of goods, making them all common property. This sharing arises out of the changed attitude mentioned earlier, the situation in which a man owns things but says, “I do not own them exclusively, and I don’t want to hold onto them for my purposes. I’m glad to give them up if any has a need, and share them.” That is the first mark of the life of Jesus at work.
Are you clinging to anything? To a material standard of living that you insist on having, no matter what someone else needs? Are you clinging to status, to personal ambition, or to something else? You will never be able to enter into and enjoy, the life that flows in richness and fullness through the body of Christ till you end your clinging.
Here is the posture of the man who clings: He is hanging on with clenched fists, and his fists are in everybody else’s face, a threat to them. But the Christian posture, the Christian stance, is one of openhanded giving, acceptance, and readiness to give. This is the way our Lord is pictured in almost every portrait of him, with hands open, ready to give abundantly to those in need.
The second form of grace is in Acts 4:36-37. It is the exercise of gifts. That is part of body life, too. It is a part of the great grace that was upon them all.
And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36-37 NKJV)
In the body of Christ in Jerusalem, there was a distribution of gifts by the Holy Spirit. You will find these gifts described in First Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. They are various gifts (called “graces” in Ephesians 4) that had been given by the Spirit to fulfill the ministry of the body in that place.
Among the early Christians was a man named Joseph. If I had used his name alone you would not have recognized him because, though his name was Joseph, he was never called that in the early church, and the church has never called him that since.
But if I mention his nickname, you will know him immediately, Barnabas. “Oh, yes, Barnabas!” Barnabas of the open heart and the warm, accepting spirit.
Barnabas who took young John Mark when he was humiliated and crushed by his failure in that first missionary visit of Paul’s. John Mark returned from the work and would have probably dropped out of Christian activity altogether if Barnabas had not found him and encouraged him, and taken him on another trip to set him on his feet.
Barnabas, who met the Apostle Paul after his conversion when he had come up to Jerusalem from Damascus, where he had been humiliated by having to be lowered over the wall in a basket and flee the city. He came up to the temple in Jerusalem and sought the fellowship of the apostles. But they were afraid of him for this was the man who had been persecuting and killing the church (members). They would have nothing to do with him till Barnabas went out to him, and brought him in by the hand, and introduced him, and vouched for him.
Seven or eight years later it was Barnabas who went down to Tarsus where Paul had been living — a spiritual drop out — since his experience in Damascus. An awakening had broken out in Antioch, and it was Barnabas who went to Paul’s hometown and found him and brought him back.
Barnabas, the Son of encouragement. He had the gift of exhortation, of comfort, of encouragement — an excellent gift. He used it so diligently and employed it so widely that everyone began to call him by his gift. I think that is great!
We have gifts of helps, gifts of wisdom, gifts of knowledge, gifts of teaching and gifts of prophecy here. It would be great to call someone the Son of Teaching, the Son of Prophecy, the Son of Helps, whatever it might be, instead of the son-of-something-else that we sometimes hear. That is great grace — the exercising of gifts, the awareness of needs and the supplying of those needs.