They Had all Things in Common

Historical reporting presents a constricted view of the events and culture being described. Ultimately all history is a snapshot that, despite being worth a thousand words, cannot convey the actualities of the past. Because it occurs in the present time, we know that the modern church is doctrinally divided and multi-complex. In contrast, Luke’s church’s community appears focused, united and void of major conflictions or internal strife. Acts 4:32 we are shown a harmonious band of believers, “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.”[i]

In truth the Greco-Roman world was a complex, diverse and conflicted period. The early church struggled with challenges equal to the ones today; disciples disputed who had greatest authority (Luke 9:46) and committed betrayal (Luke 22:3, 22:61). The apostles were prosecuted, imprisoned and executed (Act 5, 6, 7, 12), followers hid their wealth (Acts 5:1-11), conflicts arose between Hellenistic Jews and Hebrews (Acts 6:1-7); a pivotal council in Jerusalem was called to determine gentile inclusion or exclusion (Acts 15). In Luke’s writings these issues were briefly presented and then resolved with no real sense of struggle or adversity.

The apostles in Acts are presented as highly self-confident and heroic. Luke was a contemporary and friend to many of the Apostles and no doubt admired their courage. Yet close scrutiny of his documents demonstrate that it is God who is at work through the apostles and that they are empowered by the Holy Spirit rather than their own courage and wisdom. In his book, “Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey”, Dr. Mark Allen Powell states, “The book is sometimes called “Acts of the Apostles,” though that name can be misleading. Luke does recount stories of the apostles (and other prominent church leaders), but he is most interested in recounting the acts of God. The book could almost be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit” or “Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.””[ii]

Since our knowledge of the early church is largely based on the Book of Acts and it is considered a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, we can infer that Luke’s ideology shapes our historical knowledge of the early church. This does not imply that Luke altered the purpose of Christ’s mission to express his own philosophy. The teachings of Jesus remain foundational and authentic. What Luke recorded emphasized the work of Jesus and the Apostles as they addressed the social issues which Luke encountered in the world of Pax Romano. This can be argued for the entire New Testament, that each writer sought to apply the teachings of Jesus as the solution to the issues facing their society.

The Apostles were focused on the spiritual and human resolution rather than the geo-political problems of the Greco-Roman world. They followed Jesus’ advice, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[iii] Luke was less concerned with defining theological ideas. Though he was a bona fide scholar who could have focused on Christological themes, his intent was to demonstrate God’s work through the Holy Spirit within men rather than the works of men inspired by the teachings of Jesus who declared to them in Luke 12:12, “for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” ”[iv]

Societal issues were paramount to Luke’s beliefs. In both books Luke was “…emphasizing God’s acceptance of the poor, the marginalized, and any who might be considered outcasts”.[v] The apostles were committed to caring for and redeeming the people which Jewish and Roman society had negated to second class status. “The early church is marked by a commitment to eliminating poverty (4: 34) and by an inclusive vision that seeks to incorporate people from all nations, including such traditional enemies as Samaritans (8: 4– 25).[vi]

Though meant to document the growth of the new faith and record the actions of the Apostles, Luke focused on the poor to express the true nature of God’s intent.The poor and the oppressed are one and the same, for in this Gospel poverty is viewed as a consequence of injustice: the poor have too little because others have too much.” [vii] Centuries later this compassion would impact the direction of the 20th century church with the emergence of the Pentecostal movement.

Another key theme in Luke’s writing which would manifest itself in the present day church is the role of salvation for the followers of Christ. Many early followers believed that Christ would return during their lifetime and salvation indicated the immediate fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. Luke was more pragmatic. He cautioned, as Jesus proclaimed, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)”[viii] Since the second coming of Christ, the parousia, may not have been imminent, Luke argued that “Christians should experience the consequences and manifestations of God’s saving power here and now rather than simply waiting for Christ to rescue them from an imperfect world or longing for bliss in a life to come.[ix]

Underpinning the aspirations of discipleship was the work of the Holy Spirit. During the apostolic stage of church growth the Holy Spirit had a more direct and active role. It gave power to the apostles for speaking in tongue (Acts 2:5), healing, (3:7), vision (7:5) and punished those who tested the spirit (5:9). The work of the apostles is supported by the “… external manifestations”[x] of the Holy Spirit and Luke clearly wanted to convey that it was the triune God who was accomplishing the works of the early church founders.

Paul referred to the Holy Spirit as “spiritual gifts” (1Corinthians 12:1, 14:1, 14:12). The question in the early church was “…were those gifts given for all time, or were they specific to the apostolic era and so have now died out?” This question is asked by Rev. Alister E. McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College in London, England. In his book, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First”.   He continues to wonder, “Was the pattern of spiritual gifts that was shown, for example, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) specific to the needs and opportunities of the first years of the church—or was it valid for all time? [xi]

The centrality of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s writings has given rise to Pentecostal theology, a doctrine which experiences a revival in the early 20th century and strongly impacts contemporary society and present day Christianity. The reason for this renewal was that, “Luke’s Gospel shows special concern for outcasts, for victims of oppression, and for others who appear to be at a disadvantage in society.”[xii] Modern Pentecostalism can be traced to Luke’s theme of God using the Holy Spirit through the Apostles to address the injustice in society. The Pentecostal movement which began in the early 20th century also sought to address these same issues.

Rev. McGrath contends that such gifts were negated by the church and revived in the early 20st century. “The belief that such gifts had died out (known as “cessationism”) was widespread within mainline Protestantism from the sixteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. There was no reason to think otherwise, in the absence of any significant evidence of such spiritual gifts being experienced within the church. The outbreak of charismatic phenomena—such as speaking in tongues—on the first day of the twentieth century in the United States, followed by sustained global growth in such phenomena, raised questions about cessationism and convinced many that such spiritual gifts remained at the disposal of the church.”[xiii]

In his writings, Dr Powell rightfully points out many important themes in Luke’s texts – “(1) a call to uncompromising allegiance to God and absolute trust in God; (2) a promise of forgiveness that leads to the reconciliation of sinners and a new inclusion of outcasts among God’s people; (3) a reassessment of certain legal interpretations, particularly those that are deemed burdensome or viewed as fostering spiritual elitism; (4) a radical “love ethic” that declares love for God and neighbor to be a synopsis of all God’s demands and that urges people to love everyone, even their enemies; (5) a reversal of value judgments that insists that God favors the poor over the rich and the meek over the powerful, with the obvious corollary that those who wish to please God should humble themselves through voluntary poverty and service.”[xiv]

Today many people may read these words and ask the question that Dr Powell poses, “Some Christian readers find the comparison between Acts and our modern world to be depressing: Why can’t the church be like this today?”[xv] Christian leaders were asking the same question at the end of the 19th century. The booming industrial revolution was creating human debris of ignorance, poverty, discrimination and corruption. Could not the spiritual gifts given to the Apostles be revived to address the corruption of modern times? In finding a new way to address these contemporary issues, 20th century churches turned back to what worked in the 1st century. Dr McGrath states, “Here, the decisive factor in changing the corporate mind of Protestantism over the best part of a century was not a new way of interpreting the Bible but renewed experience of something that had been believed to be extinct.”[xvi]

Faith healing and speaking in tongue were embraced as tenets of the emerging Pentecostal movement. Along with them came the ideas that Christian action should be modeled after the examples of the Apostles, that through compassion, healing, worship, communal sharing and inclusion of all the human sufferers created by secular society could be uplifted by the spiritual application of the Holy Spirit. This would infuse an awareness of God’s presence manifested through Christ Jesus. Christian theology turned from “Wherever Christ is, there is also the Church,” to “Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and all grace.”[xvii]

McGrath also contends, “Yet it is important to appreciate here that one of the most fundamental characteristics of Pentecostalism is its insistence that the divine may be encountered in the secular realm. Its astonishing success points to the reversal of this trend and the emergence of a new form of Protestantism characterized by its expectation of the direct experience of the spiritual within the mundane.”[xviii]

While Acts demonstrated the work of the Apostles who were chosen by God (John 17:6) Luke also emphasized that all men possessed or could acquire spiritual gifts. The early church grew largely because people could allow the Holy Spirit to work through them, allowing the faith to spread out and not depend on a centralized hub or ruling body of men. During the epoch of the Roman Church the authority was taken from the common people and placed in the clergy and monarchy of European powers. The Protestant Reformation began to reverse the power structure, yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that much of the Christian faith returned to a spirit led connection to God which passed through and empowered the laity as much as the clergy.

Dr McGrath asks and answers, “So what role did the laity play in worship? In recent years, growing attention has been paid to the practice in early Protestant churches of involving the laity in worship through “prophesying.” This is generally interpreted as an attempt to involve the laity in public worship so as to affirm the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” in the face of the rise of a new professional class of preachers and ministers, which seemed to pose a threat to the fundamental principles of Protestantism.” [xix]

In both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke promoted the work which God does through the Holy Spirit. It is God’s desire that all peoples experience the divine gift. Much of the church’s history concerned obeying the word of God as interpreted by church leaders. The Pentecostal movement refocused the church on responding to the presence of the Holy Spirit much as the Apostles did. Though healing by faith and speaking in tongue have become part of the nomenclature of many denominations doctrines, it is the spirit of healing and teaching expressed by love, compassion and grace which governs the modern faith. The reform movement of the 1500’s and the reconnection with the Holy Spirit during the Pentecostal period helped refocuses the faith on the triune God rather than the secular politics of human endeavor, what McGrath refers to as “cerebral “book-knowledge” of God.”[xx]

At the dawn of the 21st century the world may be experiencing a return to the “book-knowledge” of God. The secular elements of the present age may overwhelm the spiritual presence of the Holy Spirit. Many will continue to believe that salvation of the body is more important than salvation of the spirit. Such superficial salvation is possible through politics and cultural acceptance. The salvation which God seeks to give comes only through the Trinity. Luke’s writing focused on the teachings of Jesus, and the works of the Apostle appointed by God and taught by Jesus. His real intent was to demonstrate that God seeks to empower all peoples through the spiritual gifts which come from the Holy Trinity. Through these gifts the human conflicts may be resolved and the Kingdom of God may be fulfilled.

[i] Tyndale. Life Application Study Bible NKJV (LASB: Full Size) (Kindle Locations 73818-73819). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 4441-4444). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tyndale. Life Application Study Bible NKJV (LASB: Full Size) (Kindle Locations 70346-70348). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 61338-61339). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[v] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 4759-4760). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[vi]Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 4759-4760). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[vii] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 3736-3738). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[viii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 59129). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 3876-3877). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[x] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Location 4888). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[xi] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (pp. 225-226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xii] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 3723-3726). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[xiii] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xiv] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 1301-1302). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[xv] Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 4971-4972). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[xvi]McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xvii] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 285). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xviii] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 264). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xix] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 290). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[xx] McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (p. 310). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Bibliography

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  3. Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha. Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
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