Studies in the Book of Acts
Fellowship of believers (2:42-43)
Luke next describes the communal life of the first Jewish converts in Jerusalem: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, were in fellowship with each other, ate together, and prayed (2:42). Let’s examine briefly each of these characteristics.
The disciples devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching.” The apostles had no particular credentials as teachers in terms of being recognized religious authorities. None of the apostles had any formal religious training. They had been fishermen, tax collectors and ordinary citizens. Yet, it was clear to the believers that the apostles had come in the power and authority of Jesus. They had the experience of being with Jesus and being taught by him directly. For these reasons, the new converts were careful to listen to and put into practice the apostles’ teachings.
The believers devoted themselves to “fellowship.” The use of the definite article in Greek, “the fellowship,” implies that the account has reference to some type of specific gathering. While Jesus must have been the focus of these meetings, the Jerusalem disciples no doubt maintained something of the flavor of their Jewish roots.
The believers in Jerusalem were devoted to prayer (2:42). Once again, the definite article and the plural (“the prayers”) suggest that Luke is referring to specific prayers or times of prayer. The apostles attended Jewish prayer services in the temple (3:1) and the converts met in the temple (2:46). It wouldn’t be surprising if their prayers followed Jewish models, although the content would be different because such prayers would often concern Jesus and be offered in his name. Prayer is a regular feature of Luke’s narrative. [See the following examples: Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 4:24-31; 6:4, 6; 9:40; 10:2, 4, 9, 31; 11:5; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 22:17; 28:8.]
Breaking of bread
The other activity the disciples devoted themselves to was “the breaking of bread” (2:42). There has been much controversy about what Luke had in mind here. Some commentators interpret the “breaking of bread” as nothing more than an ordinary meal. Others see the disciples as engaging in a Jewish fellowship meal. This is a reasonable deduction, since these believers were Jews and would have adapted customs natural to them. All meals had religious significance for Jews. Meals began with a prayer of thanksgiving and included a ceremonial breaking of bread. It’s reasonable to suppose that these Jews, now following Jesus, would have continued and extended the meaning of their communal meal.
The apostles would have taught these disciples that Jesus broke bread and gave thanks at meals. More specifically, Jesus’ breaking of the bread at the last supper would have taken on great significance (Luke 24:35). Some biblical scholars therefore see this as the first love or agape feast (Jude 12). Some call the reference to the breaking of bread the beginning of the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. They point to the use of the definite article in “the bread” as an indication that a particular meal was in view here.
When Luke uses the expression “the breaking of bread” he sometimes means the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). But on other occasions “the breaking of bread” seems to refer to an ordinary meal. [Luke 24:30, 35; Acts 20:11; 27:35.] There is logic in seeing this communal “breaking of bread” as a meal that had religious significance in terms of its connection to Jesus. Luke emphasized the association between meals and Jesus’ presence in his Gospel (Luke 24:41-42; Acts 1:4; 10:41).
William Willimon perhaps gives us the best way to view this controversial topic of “the breaking of the bread”:
The gathering of the fellowship at the table is another tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit among the new community. Go through the Gospel of Luke and note all occasions when “he was at table with them.” Each dinner-time episode in Luke is a time of fellowship, revelation, and controversy…. Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down. Whether this “breaking of bread” is a reference to our Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is a matter of debate. Probably, Peter’s church of Luke’s day would not know our distinction between the church merely breaking bread and the church breaking bread as a sacramental religious activity. In good Jewish fashion, when the blessing is said at the table, the table becomes a holy place and eating together a sacred activity…. Perhaps every meal for the church was experienced as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet, a foretaste of Jesus’ promise that his followers would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). [Willimon, 41.]
All things in common (2:44-45)
Luke next describes how the community of believers in Jerusalem “had everything in common” (2:44). He gives more details in 4:32-5:11, and it will be discussed more when we reach that section. Suffice it to say here that the statement has led to some misleading views of what Christian communities should be like. Luke was not telling us that the church should practice “Christian communism.” Luke was describing a voluntary sharing of some possessions, on an as-needed basis (2:45). This will become clear as we study this and other passages related to the issue. Having “everything in common” was an ideal practiced by this close-knit church in this one city, under extraordinary times. Acts is history, not law. It is not presenting us with a practice that should be normalized for the church as a whole.
We should not assume that all of the Jerusalem Christians were required to sell all of their goods and pool their resources. For one thing, the selling of goods is done voluntarily — otherwise the generous gift of Barnabas (4:36-37) would not be worthy of note. In addition, Luke depicts the selling of possessions to meet community needs an ongoing process rather than as a one-time total divestment. He envisions a community where everyone is concerned about everyone else and willing to part with their possessions on behalf of others when the need requires. The ideal is repeated in Acts, on an even grander scale. When a famine spreads throughout the world and [Judea] is hit especially hard, the church in Antioch of Syria makes provisions to help its suffering neighbors in Jerusalem (11:27-30). [Mark Allan Powell, What Are They Saying About Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991), page 78.]
The Greek phrase Luke used here, apanta koina (“everything in common”) may allude to the Hellenistic idea that “friends hold all things in common.” The phrase was widely used as a feature of utopian or ideal societies. [Plato, Republic 449C.]
A Hellenistic reader would recognize in Luke’s description the sort of “foundation story” that was rather widespread in Hellenistic literature. An early example is Plato’s Critias,which pictures the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 62.]
Luke wrote to Theophilus, who was probably a thoroughly Hellenized Roman. To such a person, Luke would have been saying that the Holy Spirit had made possible a reality that approached the highest and most ideal aspirations of the philosophers. At the same time, this group of Christians “who had everything in common” matched the idealism of Jewish communal groups. The Essenes, for example, practiced a form of communal ownership of property and goods. [Philo, Every Good Man is Free 12.75, 85-87.]
The Jerusalem disciples, living a quasi-communal lifestyle, also strove to fulfill the promise of Moses. Israel had been promised that if the nation obeyed God, there would be no poor, because he would bless them (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). As the “righteous remnant” in Christ, these Jewish disciples may have wanted to see this condition of life fulfilled within their group. What we have then is an idealistic group of Jewish Christians attempting to live an ideal life of sharing and giving. But it was not quite what it seemed, as we shall see later. Nor was it a lifestyle mandated for all Christians in all places at all times. Even as an ideal in this one place, it faltered and led to controversy (5:1-11; 6:1-6; 11:29), something we will take up in later chapters.
In the temple courts (2:46)
This group of enthusiastic Jerusalem Christians met in the temple courts every day (2:46; see also 3:11 and 5:12). By telling us about this, Luke is showing that they continued to follow their accustomed forms of Jewish worship. The part of the temple area they met in was Solomon’s colonnade, on the east side of the outer court.
As Jews who were Christians and also Christians who were Jews, they not only considered Jerusalem to be their city but continued to regard the temple as their sanctuary and the Law as their law. Evidently they thought of themselves as the faithful remnant within Israel for whose sake all the institutions and customs of the nation existed. [Longenecker, 291.]
At the same time, “they broke bread in their homes and ate together” (2:46). The converts seemed to spend a good deal of time each day in social interaction. Those who live frenetic lives in modern Western society can only wonder at how they found time to fellowship so frequently. The fact that they ate in each other’s homes indicates that these disciples did not sell everything they owned and give all the proceeds to a communal pool. They still owned their own homes.
The original group of 3,000 increased each day as “the Lord added to their number” those who were being saved (2:47). God’s calling is instrumental in bringing people to Christ, and Luke was careful to point this out. He maintained this viewpoint on conversion throughout Acts (2:39, 47; 5:14; 11:24). The church today, in all its evangelistic and discipling programs, should remember this.
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012