They Had All Things Common

Acts 4:32 says, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own: but they had all things common”.

The above verse is a commentary of the spirit of the church shortly after it began on Pentecost. There were no divisions among them, a spirit of love for each other, and concern for the needs of the others prevailed and for a time. However brief or long it was, the prayer of Jesus was being realized: “Neither for these only do I pray: but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou Father, art is me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:20-21). In this age of infancy the historian later wrote: “The people magnified them” (Acts 5:13) with the result that “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14).

Some see in the expression “they had all things common” a form of socialism and varied efforts at communal living among disciples at various things through the years have been made. No such effort, to my knowledge, has ever been successful and sometimes has had disastrous results because unscrupulous men made pawns out of an unwary people. The notion that everyone had just one common fund from which all shared is a mistaken concept of the Jerusalem church. It is true that circumstances prevailed after the church’s beginning which likely will never be duplicated again. When the gospel was first preached one must remember that Jews from all over the world had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast commanded by God through Moses 1,500 years earlier. Three thousand souls initially responded to the gospel and shortly thereafter swelled to five thousand men (Acts 4:4). How many of this number were people from Judaea and Galilee, and how many were from the various nations elsewhere simply is not known. There is no way to know how many who were baptized on Pentecost from other nations returned home after their baptism, nor how many remained in Jerusalem. Whatever the number, there was a considerable number of people who might possibly be in need of assistance. When that time came, assistance to such disciples was necessary. Additionally, they had a number of widows who had no family to provide their needs (Acts 6:1-6). The needs of these brethren and widows were met by those who were possessors of houses or lands which they sold, giving what money they received to the apostles to fill the physical needs of needy brethren.

However, the selling of houses and lands and putting the funds received into one common fund was never commanded by the apostles nor practiced by the whole church. The right to the hold personal property was never relinquished nor, as earlier observed, commanded.

The next chapter (Acts 5:1-11) records the sad story of the death of a husband wife (Ananias and Sapphira). The couple had property which they sold, then lied about how much they have received: They claimed to have given the complete amount they had received for their property, when in fact, they had not. Peter, through the Holy Spirit perceived their falsehood and said to Ananias, “While it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power?” (Acts 5:4). Ananias and Sapphira were never commanded to sell what property they had then give it all to the apostles. Neither was any other disciple. It was theirs before it was sold. And after it was sold it was their right to determine what amount, if any, they would “lay at the apostles’ feet”.

We must remember that there were those who retained property in Jerusalem and did not live in a communal arrangement.  Acts twelve records the first apostle to be martyred (James, the brother of John) and Herod the king (who had had James killed) determined to do the thing to Peter, shutting him up in prison (Acts 12:1-4).  When brethren learned of Peter’s imprisonment, prayers were offered up for him.  The Lord still had work for Peter to do so He sent an angel at night to release Peter from the prison cell in which he was incarcerated.  The angel stayed with Peter for awhile, opening locked doors and gates for him until he was safe, then the angel left him.  Peter made his way to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many disciples had gathered to pray.  When Peter came to Mary’s house and knocked at the door, a young maid answered the door and hastened to tell the brethren praying that Peter was without (Acts 12:12f).  Mary had her own home and she had servants to help her keep that home.  Brethren gathered in her home to pray for Peter. Communal living with one common purse was not practiced in Jerusalem by the church as a whole as the two preceding examples illustrate.

Communal living, with one common purse, was never practiced among congregations outside of Jerusalem, either. Instructions to brethren in various churches were given and those instructions told them, among other things, how to use their wealth (1 Timothy 6:17-19). However, there was never a commandment given that disciples were to sell everything they had, and put it into one common fund from which all shared. Early Christians showed their love for their brethren by supplying their needs, but they were never condemned for having possessions. They were instructed that when they did have possessions, they were to use their possessions properly.

If God has blessed you with material wealth, pass that blessing on. Keep your eyes open to the needs of others and then help them fill their needs.

Jim McDonald