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For what purpose did "they devote themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship" AND "sell their possessions, distributing the proceeds to all"? Was it due to a famine or just out of love and devotion for the body?

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  • Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics forum, Eric. Please note that this forum is different than others because it's focused on analysis of the meaning of specific scriptures. "Why" questions are often difficult to answer or speculative. For example, "Why did Jesus spend most of his ministry in Galilee?" However, the answer to your question can be found in the teachings and commands provided by Jesus to his disciples, which were obeyed and lived out by his authentic followers. You might also be interested in downloading a copy of the Didache, written in the first century AD, for its views.
    – Dieter
    Commented May 5 at 20:30
  • This is a somewhat related question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/76366/…
    – Perry Webb
    Commented May 5 at 20:50
  • The Apostles' teaching is the only source of teaching about Jesus because they were the witnesses. 1 John 1:1-5.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 5 at 21:38

5 Answers 5

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The apostles followed Jesus' Great Commission, as recorded in Matthew 28:19-20, by teaching people to obey everything Jesus had commanded.

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)

During His ministry, Jesus instructed His followers to exchange their earthly riches to heavenly treasures. References as below;

Matthew 13:44 - The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (NIV)

Matthew 13:46 - When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (NIV)

Matthew 19:21 - Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (NIV) (see also Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:22)

Luke 12:33 - Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys (NIV)

Therefore, Acts 2:42-47 vividly portrays the apostles and Jesus' disciples faithfully adhering to Jesus' teaching, empowered by the Holy Spirit they received after Pentecost, as detailed in the early passages in Acts chapter 2.

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I have upvoted @Vincent Wong's answer but would add this: The apostles seem to have been carrying over the tradition that Jesus established when he sent the disciples out to witness:

Mark 6

7 He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. 9 They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic.

During Jesus' life on earth, there are few reports of a home being owned by one of the apostles. One such home was that of Peter (Matthew 8:14) where Jesus visited and cured Peter's mother-in-law. Peter himself left his home (and also his wife) to follow Jesus. Another is the home of Matthew/Levi (Mk. 2:15), where Jesus dined with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors. There is no report about what happened to these properties (nor do we know if they were owned or rented).

Another issue related to this question is whether the policy mentioned in Acts 2 was required, or how long it lasted. The text may be read either as implying that everyone sold all they owned - including their houses - or that some did. We may assume that if a person was caring for a family, they would not be expected to sell their home and all their possessions. Acts 6:7 reports a "large group of priests" joining and becoming obedient to the faith. It is doubtful that these men would live communally, as they were expected to take care of their wives and children. In Luke 8:3, we are told that certain wealthy women (Magdalene, Susanna and Johanna) cared for the apostles out of their material substance. In the period described in Acts, rather than Joanna, for example, selling all she owned (she was the wife of Herod's steward), she could probably do more good for the church by making regular contributions. Certainly she would not be expected to leave Herod's palace in the Galilee and live in a Christian communal house in Jerusalem.

Finally, it is certain that by the time Paul wrote, the policy mentioned in Acts was no longer practiced - at least not outside of Jerusalem - for he often greeted wealthier Christians by name, along with "the church that meets in your home." (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, etc.)

Conclusion: The idea of holding "all things in common" seems to be a carry-over from the early tradition of Jesus' ministry. We do not know if it was strict policy for all church members or only a practice that exemplary Christians followed. The tradition is reiterated in Acts 4-5, but once thousands of people had converted, this policy could certainly not be sustained. By the time of Paul's letters, wealthy Christians clearly retained their homes and at least some of their property (including slaves), placing them in the service of the church as much as possible.

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The Church is Christ’s own body.1 Christians are the body parts of Christ’s body, and because Christians are united,2 they are also body parts of one another:

Romans 12:5

so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individual body parts of one another.

For this reason, what one Christian does, they do to the benefit or detriment of all Christians. If one Christian suffers, all Christians suffer. What one Christian lacks, all Christians lack.

1 Corinthians 12:26–27

26 And if one body part suffers, all the body parts suffer with it; or if one body part is honored, all the body parts rejoice with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and individual body parts.

For this reason, the believers shared everything in common to ensure no Christian suffered or lacked.


Footnotes
1 Col. 1:18
2 1 Cor. 6:17, 12:12–13
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See my answer to What was the Early Church’s view on socialism? - Christianity Stack Exchange.

In particular:

a recap of what is described two chapters earlier:

Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
— Acts 2:44–45

Why did they do that?

First, consider what happened just before that:

Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
— Acts 2:41—42

Instead of consisting of a few long-time disciples, the community had suddenly expanded into thousands of people, all learning, living, eating, and praying together.

This rapid expansion immediately followed the beginning of the church of God during Pentecost following the Crucifixion described earlier in the same chapter:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.
And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.
Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?
“And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?
“Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
“Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
“Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
— Acts 2:1–11

This is where most of the three thousand new Christians came from; not from Jerusalem's inhabitants, but from Jews visiting from throughout the Roman Empire.

Whether they had come to Jerusalem for a Pentecost pilgrimage or on business, they were all visitors, all expecting to return home in the near future. But now unexpectedly, they had been given a taste of God's truth and wanted more; they couldn't simply drop it and go home. (It seems likely that this was God's plan, for these foreign Jews to be converted and to spread the Gospel when they do finally return to their own lands.)

Instead, they all wanted to stay and learn for as long as reasonably possible. But many of them couldn't afford to stay any longer, and many of those that were rich enough didn't have access to any of their money (no ATMs or e-transfers in those days).

So, those that did have access to money, or to possessions that could be sold, donated what they had to the common cause. They themselves wanted to stay and learn, so they understood how much everyone else also wanted to stay. And everyone understood the mission they had suddenly been assigned, to spread the Gospel message around the world.

Yes, they were living communally, but clearly this was a temporary arrangement, out of necessity rather than choice.

As the quotation from Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians confirms, the new Christian communities that arose from the resulting evangelism did not practice a socialist lifestyle — "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.".

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There are a couple options we can see here.

One of those is some early Christians believed Christ might return in a matter of weeks or months. Therefore, selling the lands was a way to support themselves (and the group) until that time.

In hindsight, we can now better understand God's plan was to turn the eventual persecution of Christians to his own purpose, that they would "be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8), so that all peoples may have the chance to hear the Gospel.

A better understanding involves the timing of events, along with the nature of the people. This all begins during Pentecost, a major feast which brought in nearly as many Jews and jewish converts to Jerusalem as the Passover itself. Christians reading their Old Testament might look for references there to the "Feast of Weeks".

Internet searches will offer wildly varying claims on actual numbers, but even the tightest estimates will allow the population of Jerusalem to triple for Pentecost. Given all the interest generated for Jesus by the recent Passover events, it's likely this particular Feast of Weeks was a little larger, populated partly by the curious, and many of those would in turn be people inclined to be receptive to the message of Jesus.

Pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feast are then finally convinced of the Resurrection of Jesus as the Christ and Messiah based on miracles performed by the Apostles and through information from eye witnesses for the death and resurrection of Jesus, which were still plentiful as it was only 7 weeks prior. This is sufficient for many of them to completely upend their lives.

That significant numbers of people really actually do this is historically verifiable separate from the Bible about as well as anything else from the period. That this many people would completely reorient their lives — and later continue to hold to the new pattern even after persecution begins — is a major witness to the veracity of the Biblical description of events.

Next we need to understand that Jesus was a public figure... nearly everyone in the region had at least heard of him. But given the lack of mass communication options in that age, many people from outside of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Galilee had had limited or no direct exposure to his teaching.

This is where the "devote themselves to the apostles teaching" phrase becomes important. These new believers needed time to learn about what Jesus had actually said and taught. Moreover, they needed support while they did so, at least until they either were able to return home, or create a new life for themselves in Jersusalem.

And this is what "sell[ing] their possessions, distributing the proceeds to all" is most likely really about: supporting new believers from out of town so they can fully learn the teachings of Jesus from the Apostles.

It is possible it is also part of God's plan that when persecution begins in earnest, local Christians are already divested of their interests and free to move out to other areas, thereby spreading the Gospel.

This also helps explain part of Paul's activity later on, where he mentions a number of times how he is bringing support back to Christians in Jerusalem. This could be, at least in part, because they had extra needs, having already depleted much of the original wealth among them.

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