“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”. (Acts 2:44)
An experiment that failed? A temporary affair which enabled some of the early converts from other countries to stay longer in Jerusalem so they could gain further instruction in the faith? These are some of the theories held about the early Jerusalem community.
Luke, however, devotes much space to the earliest community in the book of Acts, showing the importance he attached to it. I think we can assume the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost was very much the result of Jesus’ intensive training of the Twelve. They continued and expanded what they had been already doing along with Jesus. Luke’s descriptions betray his admiration for its lifestyle, despite its imperfections.
Immediately after the Passover, possibly AD30, it looked as though Jesus’ mission had ended in failure – but the surety with which His followers said they had seen Him alive after His death and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit 50 days after the Passover, changed everything.
Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” (Matt 5:3) were realised. Empty, longing hearts had been filled – not only with the Holy Spirit, but with the opportunity to participate in a visible, extraordinary, new way of living: a new kingdom. Jesus’ vision had begun to be realised.
So, what did this earliest of Christian communities look like?
On the slopes of southeast Jerusalem was the Lower City, filled with the crowded, humble houses of the city’s poorer inhabitants. Many of Jerusalem’s wealthier citizens lived in the spacious south western area, the Upper City. We know that Jesus had some wealthy followers; we know also the poor heard Him gladly and perhaps many of the earliest adherents of ‘the Way’ resided in the lower crowded city.
The daily meeting place for the growing community was the Temple courts and here the apostles taught the early disciples. Meals were shared in one another’s houses. Those that had enough or more sold the excess and shared with poorer members. Everything was corporately owned. As the church grew, organisation centred on the apostles – money was brought to them and then (probably quickly) redistributed to those in need. A daily distribution of food was also made to the particularly vulnerable widows.
In the Law of Moses the Israelites were commanded to celebrate a Year of Jubilee every fifty years – a year of rest from labour when family land that had been sold was returned to the original owners and inequalities and oppressive practices that had crept in were put right. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that he was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the promised coming one who was ‘to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18-19), His hearers may have been reminded of the Mosaic Jubilee. These early Jerusalem disciples would have seen their community as a fulfilment of the vision of Jesus, and possibly a ‘new Jubilee’.
Was the early Jerusalem community hierarchical, or led more horizontally? The answer is that it grew organically and was probably a mixture of spontaneous sharing and some central organisation (headed up by the apostles). This was a ‘first generation’ community; organisation and systemisation was not the most important thing to them. In its initial form, it didn’t last very long. The sad tale of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) shows that sharing was not coerced in any way – a choice to give, or not, remained. To be deceitful about the nature of one’s giving was not a choice, however.
What happened to this earliest community? The Jerusalem church had a turbulent history: the early Jerusalem church was first scattered by persecution, following the death of Stephen. This was probably only two years after the death of Jesus (with Paul as one of the chief persecutors).
“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8: 1-3)
By this time, the Christian message had spread to other Jewish cities. (Acts 26:9-11) Paul’s conversion is dated around AD34 and a time of relative peace and consolidation followed:
“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)
Herod Agrippa (King of Judea from 41 to 44 AD) instigated a fresh round of persecution around AD44 (Acts 12:1-19). James, one of the Twelve, was killed and Peter was put in prison. The famine foretold by the prophet Agabus (Acts 11:27) broke out in Judea around the same time and Judea began to suffer badly because of droughts and crop failure. All these would have had repercussions for the early church, possibly in terms of further scattering and depletion.
In these early years James, the Lord’s brother, became the main leader of the Jerusalem community while Peter, still active in the leadership of the Jerusalem community, had a more itinerant ministry. The early Jerusalem Christians remained as a sect within Judaism, indeed ‘James the Just’ as he was known, was widely respected in the Jewish community although killed by mob violence in possibly AD62.
There are later signs of unease within the early Jerusalem community. Christian Pharisees from Jerusalem went to Antioch, telling the Gentile Christians there that they must be circumcised in order to partake in the salvation Jesus offered (Acts 15:1-5). Clearly, leaders Peter and James did not agree with them on this.
Did the Jerusalem Christians continue to practise community of goods during these difficult times? We don’t know but possibly in the uncertainties of their daily lives, they had to adopt a more flexible approach. We can ascertain, however, from the letter of James, that equality/social justice within the church was still very important:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
As the church spread and began to include Gentile believers, the early Gentile churches looked to the Jerusalem church for guidance on the key issues raised by the Christian Pharisees’ visit to Antioch. At the Council of Jerusalem (around AD49) the Jerusalem church leadership attempted to settle the question of which parts of the law Gentile converts should keep. Paul was also always keen that churches outside Jerusalem support the beleaguered Jerusalem church.
When the Jewish war with Rome broke out in AD66, the Jerusalem church came to an end. Eusebius, the Greek historian, tells us that the members went to Pella in Transjordan:
“The people of the Church in Jerusalem were commanded by an oracle given by revelation before the war to those in the city who were worthy of it to depart and dwell in one of the cities of Perea which they called Pella.”
Perhaps this is referring to Jesus’ words: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that her desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country stay out of the city.” (Luke 21: 20,21)
The Christians that had centred on Jerusalem divided into two groups: the Nazarenes who kept the law themselves and had a tolerant attitude toward their Gentile fellow believers and the Ebionites who thought all should keep the law (the Ebionites later were regarded as heretics.)
So, what can we learn from all this?
The Jerusalem expression of community was led by men chosen by Jesus, who knew Him well and followed what they believed His intentions were; it was marked by love, unity and generosity, a joyful abandon to the Lord, of everything they were and everything they owned. The people shared of their own free will – from the overflow of loving, grateful, worshipful hearts. It was marked at times by terrible hardship and the whole adventure was (it had to be) a flexible affair.
Perhaps we cannot imitate this early community in its entirety; we can, however, let the wonderful traits of this first community soak our understanding, our vision, so that, in our own day, we too can ‘do community’, however imperfectly.
For further study:
- Matthew 13:44
- Mark 10:28-31
- Luke 4:18-19
- John 17
- Acts 2:42-47
- New Bible Dictionary, IVP, Church
- Trevor Saxby. Pilgrims of a Common Life. Herald Press. 1987. Ontario.
- Houses of the Lower City – First Century Jerusalem