If we were reading this narrative as Luke intended, we would not start halfway through Acts 4. So let’s first get situated.
Acts is Luke’s second volume and follows directly after his account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in his Gospel. Both books begin with a similar prologue dedicated to a man named Theophilus, so we know the same person wrote them. Luke reminds readers in Acts 1:1 about what he said in his first book.
Then Luke recounts Jesus’ ascension to heaven, choosing an apostle to replace Judas, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the first sermon by Peter and the first converts who organize into a socialist community.
Peter and John, two of the leading apostles, then go up to the temple and at the gate heal a lame man whose disability kept him from entering (Acts 1:6-3:10). This healing creates a wild scene in the temple, another powerful sermon — and an arrest (3:11-26). The private life of the Jesus-community has quickly become public and political.
By the next morning, the trial is led by the high priests of the temple and their “rulers, elders and scribes” (Acts 4:5). It’s apparently a raucous affair, since the common people are fired up from the beggar’s healing and the powerful Pentecost sermon. So the high priests cannot do more than threaten the apostles and let them go. This is a good example of democracy in action. It is “because of the people” (4:21) that the authorities’ hands are tied.
Our lesson begins where Peter and John return to the Jesus-community they have helped birth. According to Luke’s account, their report has solidified a parting of the ways. First, the whole community prays aloud, using texts from Exodus, Nehemiah, and the Psalms (4:24-26) to claim that the “Sovereign Lord” is on their side.
In verse 27, they announce that the Jewish King Herod and the peoples of Israel have joined Pontius Pilate and the Roman gentiles to oppose the God-anointed “holy servant Jesus.”
Luke’s account is uncompromising. The rulers and elders of the temple religion have betrayed God by joining with the pagan Romans to oppose this new and vibrant expression of faith. God confirms the believers’ courage by rocking the house and infusing them anew with the Holy Spirit (4:31).
For discussion: Does this story simply dramatize what happened at the birth of the church, or is Luke suggesting principles to apply to church-state relationships today?
The scene changes, and the next week’s lesson deals with intracommunity relationships. As in 2:43-47, Luke again stresses shared ownership of property, but the only example he gives of someone selling property and bringing the proceeds to the apostles is Barnabas, from the island of Cyprus. Probably his field was on Cyprus and would be of no use to the Jerusalem community. Otherwise, local farms that lay on the terraced hillsides around Jerusalem would be retained for the community’s use.
More subtly than in the prayer of 4:24-26 (mentioned above), Luke suggests that this shared community is more obedient to Israel’s law than are the temple priests. The phrase, “there was not a needy person among them,” quotes Deut. 15:4, where God commands remission of debts every seventh year, so that there will be “no one in need” within Israel. This is indeed a Year of Jubilee!
Further, Joshua 14:3-4 and 21:1-41 declare that Levites may not cultivate land but must live in towns with only a plot of pasture land. By selling his farm, Barnabas is doubly obedient to the Law and the community.
While Barnabas exemplifies a righteous person, Acts 5:1-11 focuses on a couple who lie to Peter and keep back some of the proceeds they received from selling their property.
Here again we see Luke’s knowledge of Jewish law and practice. Sapphira is colluding with her husband to sell and cheat on her own wifely inheritance, called a ketubah. Her submission to patriarchal marriage is stronger than her commitment to the community. Thus both Ananias and Sapphira show by their deception and subsequent deaths that they are not part of the kin-group gathered around the risen Jesus.
For discussion: Some commentators think this shared communal life never happened, and Luke was just idealizing the early Jerusalem church. Others believe it happened but did not last because it was impractical. What do you think Luke intends to convey?
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts and Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation.