< May 15, 2011 >

Commentary on Acts 2:42-47

 

In the book of Acts three major summaries connect narratives to miracle stories and miracle stories to narratives (2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16).

These summaries provide a general picture of the activities the new believers engaged in when they congregated under the leadership of the apostles. Our text, 2:42-47, the first major summary, follows the massive baptism that results from Peter's first missional speech at Pentecost. The summaries tell incomplete stories of how the nascent group of believers constituted a community. Summaries provide snapshots; they are not designed to tell the whole story. They do not relate community problems.

But Luke has interlaced the major summaries with episodes about trouble and disorder--the religious authorities attempt to detain Peter and John (4:1-31) for teaching and performing miracles in Jesus' name; Ananias and Sapphira retain some proceeds from their property sale and are fatally punished (5:1-11); and after chapter five, where the last major summary appears, Luke provides the first narrated community dispute between the Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) and the Hebrews (Aramaic speaking Jews) over the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily ministry (6:1-7).

Immediately preceding our text, the new believers are told that they would receive the promise of the Holy Spirit (2:38-39). There is no immediate Spirit manifestation such as speaking in other languages, but the narrative immediately shifts to our summary about the community of new believers implicitly anticipating the promise of God's Spirit. This mirrors the command to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Spirit in chapter 1 and the subsequent meeting in the upper room. The appropriate response to God's promise is active expectation that God will continue to do what God promised.

Mutual commitment shapes and maintains community
It is important that community building starts on the right foot. Verse 42 begins "And they were committing themselves (proskartereo) to the teaching of the apostles and to the koinonia..." This is the first mention of the apostles' teaching in Acts. Many persons have now joined the Jesus movement who may never have heard Jesus' teachings. It is not clear in the Greek text whether the breaking of bread and prayers at verse 42 constitutes the koinonia or if they are activities distinct from the koinonia. Nevertheless, koinonia signifies mutuality and commonality among the new believers beyond potluck meals; it consists of building a shared existential reality and anticipatory future. 

Instructively, the Greek verb proskartereo describing the believers' mutual devotion is the same verb used for the disciples' commitment as they gathered in the upper room waiting for the outpouring of God's Spirit (1:14). The presence of proskartereo in both texts and other linguistic parallels may demonstrate a paradigmatic relationship between Acts 1:14 and 2:42-47. That is, Acts 1:14 is the model upon which the first (and subsequent) major summary is based. Our text reflects the charismatic growth of the community quantitatively and qualitatively expanding upon that first upper room gathering. Proskartereo occurs a second time in our summary at 2:46 where the focus shifts to how the believers committed themselves to the Temple and to house-to-house breaking of bread. Proskartereo indicates the devotion of Cornelius' slaves to their master (10:7) and of Simon to the Hellenist Philip (8:13). If it were not for the proskartereo of the believers, their attention to the apostles' teaching, prayers, eucharistic celebrations, and participation in signs and wonders would be less than koinonia, but merely activities that they engage in simultaneously and in the same place. Proskartereo engenders koinonia mutuality--the giddy sharing of goods, self and time for the welfare of all.

Luke repeats here two other phrases introduced at 1:14 to describe the pre-Pentecostal assembly: "at the same place and at the same time" (epi to auto) and they "were having all things common (koina)." It is not enough to share space and time, but an intentional act of koina is required. Verse 45 delineates more tangibly how the believers held all things common: "they sold their goods and their real property, and they distributed the proceeds to whoever among them was in need." Commonality and sharing was not limited to spiritual things, but included material possessions. This koina is what many scholars find least credible. We can read these words as descriptive of actual events or as a prescriptive ideal picture of how Luke envisioned a koinonia-governed community.

God's Spirit engenders signs and wonders on the earth
The Greek adverb homothumadon (in one accord) also occurs both in our text at 2:46 and at 1:14. In both texts homothumadon follows proskartereo demonstrating a unified devotion among the disciples in the second floor room and among the early community after the Pentecostal increase (cf. 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 7:57). Homothumadon also signifies the Samaritan people's united attachment to Philip (8:6, 7, 13) because of the powerful deeds he performed. The harmonious commitment of the early believing community could be partly motivated by the many signs and wonders that the apostles performed (2:43). We cannot deny the power of tangible and visible miracles.

The Joel quotation that Luke inserted and modified from the Septuagint states that in the last days wonders (terata) would occur in the heavens above and signs (semeia) on the earth below (2:19). Our summary does not agree with the Joel quotation. The apostles like Jesus before them perform both signs and wonders on earth. We are called to bring about tangible signs and wonders on the earth, not just in the church. Signs and wonders signify that God's Spirit is at work on the earth. When we act with homothumadon to do our part to eliminate hunger, homelessness, child abuse, discrimination, and inequality in education, inter alia, God's Spirit, in and through us, performs signs and wonders on the earth. Mutual and unified commitment engenders marvelous acts of social justice within the community and beyond.

Our summary finally describes how the community praised God and demonstrated favor or grace toward one another. And the Lord (God) saved many more who were brought into the community. Ultimately, it is God who saves and expands the community, but not without our cooperation. God worked in and through people willing to teach and be taught, to believe in, perform and receive signs and wonders, and to create mutual koinonia.