In preaching courses, we are usually taught that maybe 10 to 20 percent of our sermon-prep research makes it into the actual sermon. So, as a general rule, preachers don’t usually get to talk about everything they discovered about the passage they are preaching on. This is simply for clarity’s sake; the small details of a passage, however fascinating, may not be pertinent to the overall message. That’s why I like to write. I live for those small details and insights. If they don’t make it into a sermon, I write about them. It’s like scratching a theological itch. This is one of those instances.
I preached a sermon recently on the early church in Acts. In studying for the sermon, I came across an interesting parallel between Luke’s description of the fellowship of believers in Acts and the Sabbatical Year described in Deuteronomy 15. There was a specific passage in Acts 4 that stood out to me:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.Acts 4:32-35, ESV
Specifically, the phrase in verse 34: “there was not a needy person among them.” This phrase appears to reference a specific law described in Deuteronomy: The Sabbatical Year.
In Deuteronomy 15, the Sabbatical year is described as a year in which God commanded the Israelites to cancel debts owed to them by other Israelites. God’s intention was to cultivate in his people a heart of generosity, benevolence, and mercy toward their fellow countrymen. Take a look at verses 1 through 4:
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. 3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. 4 But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess.Deuteronomy 15:1-4, ESV
Did you catch that?
Verse 4: “But there will be no poor among you . . .”
The similar language between Acts 4:34 and Deuteronomy 15:4, if intentional, could be significant.
I know what you’re thinking . . . ‘You’re using an English translation. How can you compare the languages if the passages were not originally written in English?’
Great question. Take a look at the two verses, side-by-side in Greek. Deuteronomy 15:4 is taken from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament from around the 3rd century B.C.).
ὅτι οὐκ ἔσται ἐν σοὶ ἐνδεής
But there will be no poor among you…
οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐνδεής τις ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς
And there was not a needy person among them…
The same word, ἐνδεής (endeēs) is used in both instances. This word is an adjective meaning “needy, poor, or destitute”. In Deuteronomy, the noun “person/people” is implied. In Acts, the adjective is attached to the noun τις (tis; “person”).
In Deut., the verb ἔσται (estai; “there will be”) is a future-tense form of the verb εἰμί (i–mee; “to be”). In Acts, the verb is in the imperfect tense (which, in the case of this particular verb, is read as past-tense); (ἦν; ēn; “there was”).
“…there will be”
“And there was”
Did Luke, in his description of the early church, intentionally recall the language in Deuteronomy? If so, this means that Luke viewed the early church’s generosity and benevolence toward one another as the fulfillment of God’s design for the Sabbatical year.
Why is this important?
Well, recall where the first Christian communities were established: Jerusalem. Many of these Christian converts were Jews, and they were fulfilling the Law that had been given to their ancestors thousands of years prior! Further, Luke makes it clear that it is through the Spirit that they were fulfilling the Law; it was by the grace of God, not of their own volition. The debt that the Law represented was being reconciled in the midst of the people of Israel, through the Church, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.
The early church, then, personified what God had wanted Israel to be all along: a holy community united by a covenant of grace.
And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them…Acts 4:33-34