In this season of Easter, we are following passages from the second volume of the book of Acts, the second volume in the orderly account which, by tradition, is attributed to Luke. We have followed, in previous weeks, Peter’s speech to the crowd which had gathered in Jerusalem on the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1).
In the passage set for this Sunday (the fourth Sunday in the season of Easter), we see how Peter’s speech and the response which follows from it leads to the expansion of the community within Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47). That community is, in the mind of the author of this two-volume work, the key successor to the movement that was initiated by Jesus, when he gathered people around him, taught them and heralded them, and challenged them to become his disciples–to follow him along the way that he was walking. And, in time, those followers did become known as members of “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).
The community of Jews who gather in this initial scene, are those who perceive Jesus as Messiah. This community, as it is described here, has various characteristics, which are set forth in a summary description of the community (2:42-47). Many of these characteristics recur in the six “summary descriptions” of the community which are found in this early section of this work, revolving around Jerusalem (4:4; 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 5:41-42; 6:7; 8:1b-3).
The concluding verses of chapter 2 thus continue the programmatic role which we have seen in Peter’s speech (and which we will note in the Pentecost event). The community gathers for four inter-related aspects of their common life which are introduced in the first verse (2:42): the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. These four aspects, and associated ideas, provide a programmatic description of the messianic Jewish communities in Jerusalem and beyond, into our own time. They could be considered to be four marks of the church which might be relevant for our time.
It is important to note that, in my understanding, what the author of the orderly account is providing, is not a factual historical account of the early community of faith that formed in Jerusalem. The author, as far as is indicated, was never a member of that community, nor is there any indication that the author drew on first-hand accounts of that community from anyone who belonged to it. (You might be able to draw such a conclusion from the reference to “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” Luke 1:1-4, but there is no other evidence to support this hypothesis.)
Indeed, the descriptions of what took place in Jerusalem are always offered from an external, editorial, out-of-the-story vantage point — by contrast with some later sections (the so-called “we sections”) where the author appears to insert himself into the narrative and give the appearance of being personally involved in the events being narrated. (Whether he was, or not, is a matter for another time.)
Rather, in my understanding, the author of the orderly account is providing a visionary description, an idealised account, a picture that was intended to inspire, instruct, enthuse, and even challenge the people to whom the work was addressed, an audience most likely in the later decades of the first centrist, a half-century after the time of Jesus and the origins of this movement. We have a picture of the church in its “golden age” which stands as close to the reality of the church in that period, as any of the modern fairy tales or ancient myths stand in relation to ordinary human life as we know it.
It is not history. But it is a picture which can instruct and enthuse us, today.
The first aspect, the teaching of the apostles (2:42), is not only a private matter but also a public phenomenon (4:2; 5:25,42), which will soon make the community notorious. This is made clear when the chief priest notes that “your teaching has filled Jerusalem” (5:28), despite the priests’ commands to stop. Later in Acts, the focus for this typical apostolic activity shifts to Paul (15:35; 17:19; 18:11; 21:11); in his farewell speech, Paul summarises his work as “proclaiming … and teaching” (20:20), whilst in his closing scene Luke notes that Paul’s time under arrest in Rome was characterised by “preaching … and teaching” (28:31).
The content of this teaching in the early stages concerns the resurrection of the dead (4:2) and the claim that Jesus is Messiah (5:42). From the pattern of the speeches in this section we may also reasonably conclude that Luke intends us to understand the explication of scripture as part of the apostles’ teaching (see 2:16-21,25-28,34-35; 3:22-25; cf. 4:25-26). Each of these elements continue in the teaching of Paul, who affirms the resurrection (17:18,32; 23:6; 24:15,21), confesses Jesus as Messiah (9:22; 17:3; 18:5; 28:31), and uses scripture to explain the significance of Jesus (13:33-36; 17:2-3; 26:22-23).
One interesting feature of the current situation that we are facing, with prohibitions on gathering together for worship, hearing and reflecting on scripture, praying and singing together, is that we are still seeing multiple ways in which church communities are gathering online, making the most of opportunities to bear witness to the faith and share the good news with people, through Facebook Live, YouTube streaming, ZOOM gatherings, and using other apps. The public expression of the teaching of the church continues, in new ways, through new media, even at this time.
Fellowship is identified as the second aspect of the community (2:42). The precise term koinonia occurs only here in Acts; however, the notion of sharing or togetherness which is inherent in it is evident in other ways. Members of the community gather with one mind (2:46) in a way that will consistently characterise the community (4:24; 5:12; 15:25). They meet day by day (2:46), as is evident from the immediately ensuing events.
Paul subsequently emulates this pattern of daily meetings in Beroea (17:11), Athens (17:17) and Ephesus (19:9). The Jerusalem community is described by means of a philosophical ideal, as “having all things in common” (2:44).
We find this idea expressed in Greek writers (Aristotle, Nicomedian Ethics 9.8.2; Cicero, De officiis 1.16.51; Plutarch, On Brotherly Love 490E, How to Tell a Flatterer 65A and De amic. mult. 96E; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 65A; Dio Chrysostom Oration 34.20; Diogenes Laertius 5.20, 8.10). The Essenes were described in a similar way by Philo, Every Good Man is Free 85, and Josephus, J.W. 2 §122. The first phrase is also reminiscent of the common Deuteronomic reference to ‘heart and soul’ (Deut 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:4; 26:16; 30:2,6,10).
This ideal is reinforced by the role models that Luke provides—the positive role model, Joseph Barnabas (4:36-37), and the negative role models, Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). That it remains an ideal, however, is evident from the larger movement of early Christian history.
And also, for us today, in the period of restrictions on gathering that we are experiencing, any sense of gathering together, being of one heart and mind, having all things in common, is something that we cannot actually live out. At least, not in terms of physical contact and close interpersonal connections. But if not in person, at least through online and phone connections, we can continue to share in fellowship with one another.
The third aspect, the breaking of bread (2:42,46), was a custom of Jesus (Luke 9:16; 22:19; 24:35). While 2:46 makes it clear that this was a daily practice of the Jerusalem community, there is no further reference to the breaking of bread in this section. However, the sharing of meals is inferred at various points in the ensuing narrative (10:23; 11:12; 16:14-15,34; 18:7). Later references demonstrate that “the breaking of bread” remained a practice of Paul, at least in Troas (20:7) and on board ship (27:35).
Maintaining the practice of breaking bread whilst living in a society where gathering together in person is not permitted, is a challenge. My own denomination (the Uniting Church in Australia) has determined that it is possible to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, through online worship services, with appropriate preparations and instructions provided. Not every denomination, however, has moved to that practice.
By contrast, the fourth aspect of prayers (2:42) remains thoroughly characteristic of the community in Jerusalem (1:14; 4:31; 6:4,6; 12:5,12) as well as the community established in Antioch (13:3; 14:23). Prayer is practised by other leaders in the movement which Jesus initiated: by Stephen (7:59), Peter (3:1; 8:15 with John; 9:40; 10:9; 11:5), Cornelius (10:4,30-31), and Paul (9:11; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 28:8).
These prayers indicate that God is engaged within the narrative of the story, as the recipient of petitions and thanksgivings. They signal the firm link between the various messianic communities and the divine realm. The prayers of the community also indicate the continuity that runs from the life of Jesus, for he was frequently to be found at prayer (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28-29; 10:21-22; 11:1; 22:31-32,41-42,44; 23:34,46). In this regard, as in other ways, Jesus stands as a clear role model for all those who follow in the movement which he initiated.
And this fourth mark of the church, of continuing to offer prayers, is one that we can continue to practise, today, even in this period of social distancing and self-isolating.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).