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A radical community united in God – Acts 2:42–47


Steve Walton is professor of New Testament at Trinity College, Bristol. He has published widely in New Testament studies, including the recent third edition of Exploring the New Testament, vol. 1: The gospels and Acts (London: SPCK, 2021). He blogs about New Testament studies at Acts and More and is a regular contributor to BRF’s Guidelines Bible study notes. He is a retired international volleyball referee and carried the Olympic and Paralympic torch in 2012. Steve lives in Loughborough with his wife Ali, an Anglican minister, and their Border Terrier, Flora.


Here Steve shares an extract from his forthcoming Word Biblical Commentary on Acts 1—14 (which will be published by Zondervan). This is his take on the passage from which Holy Habits emerged. We are very grateful for Steve letting us have this preview.




 

The believers’ life following the tumultuous event of Pentecost is presented in glowing and dynamic terms, highlighting seven key features, which present the community’s life as a norm for Luke’s (believing) readers.


First and foremost, the believers are bound together into a community, described uniquely in Acts as ‘fellowship’ (v. 42), denoting both that their life was shared together in daily meetings (v. 46) and that it involved sharing material resources. This sharing is not unnatural within Middle Eastern culture, but Luke presents it in terms which echo the highest aspirations of both Jewish Scripture and Greco-Roman writings (vv. 44–45 with 4:32–35). The believers included Diaspora Jews who remained in Jerusalem after Pentecost (2:9–11), Galilean disciples and apostles and urban Jerusalemites, both wealthy and poor. This diversity highlights a contrast with Greco-Roman approaches to sharing possessions, for they were limited to those of equal (normally high) social status – here the poor’s needs are met through their wealthier sisters and brothers.


Second, the teaching of the risen Jesus’s authorised representatives, the apostles (v. 42), binds their life together. This teaching probably takes place when the larger company of believers met in the temple courts (v. 46). The apostles formed the core of the ‘waiting’ group before Pentecost (1:13) and were restored to their full, highly symbolic, number of twelve (1:15–26), portraying the new community as Israel renewed and restored, and now their teaching is a core activity of this community. Through their teaching the new believers, who may not have known or heard Jesus in person, are able to learn the teaching of the one whose death has been overturned by God (2:22–24, 33) and to be instructed in what it means to live with him as Messiah and Lord (2:36) in the community of the Spirit (2:33, 38). The apostles’ assessment, as the divinely appointed leaders, will be crucial to future developments in the life of the believing community (e.g. 4:35; 6:2–6; 8:14; 9:26–27; 15:2, 6); they will be the bedrock of the restored Israel (cf. Luke 22:28–30.)


Third, joyful shared meals are an expression of the common life of the believers, particularly in homes (v. 46), and perhaps including meals in the temple courts; if so, this echoes the open table practised by Jesus during his earthly ministry (cf. Luke 15:1–2) and has an evangelistic impact, especially if not-yet-believers were welcomed to share such public meals. These meals include the symbolic action of ‘breaking bread’ (vv. 42, 46), an action which recalls Jesus’s reinterpretation of the Passover meal concerning his death (Luke 22:14–20) and is thus most likely to be eucharistic. At this stage of the community’s development, the eucharistic actions are not separated from an actual meal, a situation which continues in the Pauline communities (1 Corinthians 11:17–34).


Fourth, sharing possessions is emblematic of the community’s life (vv. 44-45). The believers show a radical readiness to share their possessions with other believers who are in need. They hold their possessions lightly as stewards of God’s good gifts. There is no trace here of a dualistic rejection of the material world; rather, the way believers handle material objects and money reflects their understanding of the generosity of God towards them in Christ and by the Spirit. In this, the believers provide for those in need, rather than the Greco-Roman model, where possessions were shared only among those of high social status. To share in this way fulfils the aspirations of Scripture, that among God’s people no one should be in need (Deuteronomy 15:4).


Fifth, the believers prayed, both in the regular temple prayers (v. 46; cf. 3:1) and their own community prayers, the two being summed up as ‘the prayers’ (v. 42). They are a messianic renewal movement within Judaism, not a separate body, for they do not withdraw from temple worship – their self-perception would be as Israel renewed or reconstituted, rather than a new Israel. Nevertheless, their prayers may well be addressed to Jesus as Lord (cf. 2:36), the one on whom people call in baptism, and this represents a dramatic new development in Jewish engagement with Yahweh. Prayer will continue to be the first resort of the believers and a key way of seeking God’s purpose and will (e.g. 3:1; 4:24–31; 7:59; 12:5, 12).


Sixth, the fellowship of the believers embraces others, rather than excluding them. Verse 47 notes both the high regard in which the believers were held and the associated (and doubtless causally connected) growth of the community. Verse 46 suggests that the believers held meals in the temple courts as well as in homes, so these meals were inclusive after the model of Jesus’s own practice and communicated the central beliefs of the community concerning Jesus, not least as the action of ‘breaking bread’ was performed and explained.


Finally and crucially, the whole is the work of God. The believers have come to faith and received the gift of the Spirit (2:38), and the Spirit’s power is doubtless to be seen in the community’s life – a life which fulfils the divine aspirations of scripture that none among God’s people will be in need (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:4, alluded to in v. 45 and echoed more explicitly in 4:34). The growth of the community is explicitly stated to be the work of God (v. 47), a work of ‘the Lord,’ who (in light of 2:21–22, 36) may well be Jesus – he is continuing to act and teach as he had done in his earthly ministry (cf. 1:1).


Reflecting on this passage and 4:34–35 in commenting on John 8:26–27, Augustine makes the link of the life and unity of the community with the life and unity of God more explicit: ‘If, as they drew near to God, those many souls became, in the power of love, but one soul and these many hearts but one heart, what must the very source of love effect between the Father and the Son? Is not the Trinity for even greater reasons, but one God?... If the love of God poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us, is able to make of many souls but one soul and of many hearts but one heart, how much more are the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit but one God, one light, one principle?’ (Tract. Ev. Jo. 39.5 [Martin & Smith]).

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