Great Power, Great Grace, Great Fear
We all know that there are passages in the Bible that make us uncomfortable. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Sometimes it’s an odd or cryptic saying of Jesus (Everything will be salted with fire). Other times it’s a strange vision like in Ezekiel or Daniel. But often it’s when God does something that we don’t expect or don’t understand, usually something frightening. This passage is one of those, isn’t it? God kills two members of his church because of some kind of inadequacy in their generosity. They commit some kind of sin in giving, and Boom, he strikes them down on the spot. And we think, “Yeah, that was wrong, that was sin, but was it immediate death penalty sin?” Does the punishment really fit the crime? And what was the crime exactly (because I don’t want to commit it)?
We saw last week how the apostles’ response to persecution was to pray for increasing boldness in their testimony to Jesus. They wanted to be clear as a bell about the person and work of Jesus, and especially that Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead in order to turn us from wickedness that we might receive forgiveness of sins and the blessing of God. The previous passage ended with the centrality of the word of God and the Spirit of God. The church was filled with the Holy Spirit and they continued to speak the word of God with boldness. This week, we see the results of the filling of the Spirit and the preaching of the word.
One Heart and Soul to Meet Needs
The end of Acts 4 and the beginning of Acts 5 are related to each other. They both have to do with how the early church viewed community and wealth and God. In Acts 4, we see the unity and fellowship and camaraderie of the early church. They are united around the preaching of the word and the filling of the Spirit, and this binds them together as one people. They are truly one body, with one heart and soul (4:32). And this fellowship wasn’t merely warm fuzzy feelings about each other, but manifested itself in concrete acts of sacrificial love. The individuals in the church were re-oriented in their view of community (one heart and soul) and their view of wealth in relation to that community. Wealth is ours, but not ours. It belongs to us, but it is not our own. We are stewards of our wealth, managers of what God has provided, and we are to use our resources to meet the needs of others.
Now the passage says that they had everything in common. What does this mean? Does this mean that none of us should have private bank accounts, but our salaries should go into a common pot? I don’t think so. In Acts 5, Peter says to Ananias, “While the field remained unsold, did it not remain your own (When it remained, did it not remain to/for you)? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal (lit. was it not under your authority)?” So it was his, it was for him, but it was also in common. It was under his authority, but it was not “his own.”
How do we put this together? When God orients our lives by his gospel and fills us with the Holy Spirit, we view our wealth and resources differently. God has given us our resources, and we hold them as a stewardship for the good of his kingdom. They are at our disposal, under our authority, but our authority is delegated to us from God. To hold everything in common means that we have a deep and abiding commitment to meet the needs of our community with the resources God has provided. We see this commitment in 4:34-35: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” To have things in common means being committed to sacrifice our wealth to meet the needs of this church, this community. It means we’re saying, “There will not be a needy person among us; our members will not go without the basic necessities of life.”
Now the particular form of distribution (laying at the apostles’ feet), I think, can vary. How you live out the commitment to meet each other’s needs is a matter of wisdom and prudence. In chapter 6, this method will be modified, at least with respect to widows. The apostles will no longer distribute the funds to meet needs; instead they will appoint others. This shows us that the form is not essential, but the principle is. This church must be committed to meeting the needs of its members. And I’m highlighting members, because this passage does. It says there was no needy person “among them.” Not there was not a needy person in Jerusalem. Now we are certainly called to meet the needs of those outside of our church; one of our essentials is that we “seek the good of the cities.” But our obligations work from the inside out. God gives us resources so that we can care for our own families (if we fail to do that, Paul says, we’ve denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers), so that we can care for our church (Do good to all men, especially the household of faith), so that we can care for other Christians in our community and around the world (Paul takes offerings for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem), so that we can meet needs in our local community and neighborhoods (like the Good Samaritan), and so that we can contribute to the advance of the gospel among the nations, especially the unreached peoples of the world. Our obligations work from the inside out, and this passage stresses the needs of the local church.
And this part of the Christian apologetic. Caring for each other is a witness to the world around us. “There are people who are bound together, united in heart and soul, that serve each other and meet each other’s needs because the Jesus, the Resurrected Son of God, is their Lord and Master, and they are filled with his Spirit.” And I emphasize that last part because the passage does. “With great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” Great power in preaching the resurrection leads to great grace in meeting needs. The grace here is the grace of sacrificial generosity. It’s like what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 8:1–5.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
When grace lands on affliction and poverty, what happens? Abundance of Joy and a Wealth of Generosity. “Please let us give to the relief of the saints. We’re eager to give until it hurts. We want to feel the pinch of generosity because what we have is under our authority, but it is not our own. We’ve been entrusted with it so that we can meet the needs of others.” That’s what the pastors of this church are praying for, and we’re eager for those of you who are members to join us in the joy and grace of giving to each other.
Even if you don’t have a lot of money to spare, you can still give. Generosity is not restricted to fields and houses and wealth. Be generous with your time and your talents.
Ananias and Sapphira
Which brings us to Barnabas, who is a transitional figure. He’s introduced here because he will be important later, and because he’s an illustration of what has just been said. He’s wealthy and he sells a field and lays the money at the feet of the apostles. But notice that he isn’t just generous with his wealth. He’s apparently generous with praise. He has a reputation for encouragement, so much so that he’s given a new name by the apostles. He’s lavish not only with money, but with words of affirmation and grace to those around him. Now keep Barnabas, with his generosity and his reputation among the apostles, in mind as we read the rest of the passage.
Ananias and Sapphira begin like Barnabas. They sell a field, and they lay money at the apostles’ feet. But there’s a notable difference: they keep back some of the money for themselves. They only lay part of it at the apostles’ feet. There’s a great evil in this, and God strikes them down on the spot.
Now before we identify what the great evil is, let’s identify what it’s not. Ananias and Sapphira are not killed by God because they didn’t tithe enough. They weren’t killed because they only gave part of the proceeds of the sale of the property. The lesson is not, “if you sell your car, you must give all of it to the church.” And we know this because of what Peter says to them. They were not required to sell the field at all. “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own?” They were not required to give all of the proceeds to the apostles. “After it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” They could have, in good conscience, sold the field for $10,000 dollars, and given $1000 or $2000 or $3000 or all of it to the church. The amount and the totality and even the act of giving itself is not the issue. So what is the issue? Let’s look at how Peter describes it.
Peter calls it “theft.” “To keep back for yourself part of the proceeds” is literally “pilfering.” Stealing. In the Bible, the word shows up twice here, and once in Titus 2, where slaves are told not to steal from their masters. So adjust your translation and see if that helps. “With his wife’s knowledge, he pilfered / stole from the proceeds…” “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and steal from the proceeds of the land?”
Peter calls it “lying to the Holy Spirit” or lying to God. (Incidentally, this is a key passage that explicitly says that the Holy Spirit is God. Lying to the Holy Spirit (5:3) is equated with lying to God (5:4).)
Peter implies that they know that they are lying to men (5:4).
Peter says it’s “testing the Spirit of the Lord” (5:9).
Theft, lying to God while thinking that you’re lying to man, testing the Spirit of the Lord. How can we put these pieces together? I think Barnabas is key. Barnabas had garnered a reputation among the apostles as an encouraging and generous person. They renamed him “Son of encouragement” because of his generosity and faithfulness and love for others. Ananias and Sapphira want that kind of reputation and recognition. They want to be known as generous, like Barnabas. And so they conspire, they agree together, to imitate Barnabas, to sell a field and give all the money to the church, with everyone knowing that all of the proceeds are going to the church. “We will sell this field, and all of the proceeds will go to meet the needs of our community.” They dedicate, they promise, all of the money to the church. But then, they sell the field, and they don’t keep their word. They lie. Maybe they got more for the field than they thought. Or maybe this was part of the plan all along. They promised all, but only gave part, while still giving the impression that they’d given all, so that they can get the same reputation as Barnabas. Which is why it’s theft, and why it’s a lie.
In other words, beneath the theft and the lie is a false view of generosity and community. There is a pride and a lust for fame that views generosity as a competition. And then, having set up a giving contest, they cheat in order to win. Barnabas gives in order to meet needs. Ananias gives in order to make himself a name. Barnabas gives in sincerity and truth. Ananias gives with dishonesty and fraud. Barnabas is the Son of Encouragement. Ananias is the Son of Lies.
Why is it a test? Because they know they are lying to men, but will God see through their lie? They’re a sanitized version of a character who appears often in the Psalms. It’s the wicked man who treats God lightly, who boasts of his evil deeds and thinks he’ll get away with it. He threatens oppression, his tongue struts through the earth, cursing others and laying traps for the poor and needy. He thinks he’s invincible, and he boasts in words like, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.” Or ““How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Or “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.” (Psalm 10, Psalm 73, Psalm 94). Ananias isn’t that bad; they don’t lie in wait and murder the needy. They don’t deny God’s existence. But they do treat him lightly. They think they can lie to men, to God’s apostles, to God’s people, and that God will just let it go. And they are wrong. God does see. God does know. God does perceive. And the living God ends it.
1. God is holy, and his people must be holy
It is a grave sin to lie to God. And what’s perhaps surprising is that by trying to lie to the church, they were lying to the Holy Spirit. The church is filled with the Spirit, and therefore to lie to them is to lie to God. To defraud the church is to defraud God. He has placed his name on us and his Spirit within us and therefore it is essential that we live upright and godly lives in good faith with all sincerity before each other. So beware of treating godliness like a competition, of trying to make a name for yourself, of wanting to appear more holy in the eyes of others. The pastors feel this burden, and we want you to feel this burden. And beware, lest you think that God does not see. God will not tolerate a sanitized atheism among his people. Judgment begins at the household of God. It doesn’t stop with the household of God (we’ll see that in Acts 12), but it starts there. Hidden sin is not hidden to the eyes of God. And whether God exposes you like he does with Ananias and Sapphira, or whether you get away with it until you stand before him, be sure your sin will find you out. It will be exposed, one way or another.
2. There is continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament
People have an impression that the God of the Old Testament is a bit of a loose cannon. He’s the one who drowned the earth in Noah’s day. He wiped out Pharaoh and his army. He commissioned total war against the Canaanites. He’s violently opposed to sin, and he will strike rebels down. Like he does with Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who offer strange fire on his altar. These priests ignore God’s word about worship, and fire consumes them. Or Uzzah, who is helping to move the ark from Shiloh to Jerusalem on an oxcart, in violation of God’s clear commands in Deuteronomy, and when the cart hits a bump, the ark’s about to fall, Uzzah tries to catch it, and God strikes him dead because men are not to touch God’s ark. We contrast that bloodthirsty God with the God of forgiveness and love in the New Testament. This passage won’t let you do that. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Joshua, the God of Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah is the very same God as the God of Peter and John and Barnabas, the God of Ananias and Sapphira. The living God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is a real possibility.
But it doesn’t always happen. God doesn’t strike down every professing Christian who tries to appear more godly or generous than they are. Not every person who lies to God is struck dead on the spot. Which brings me to the final application and to the table.
3. The reason that we are not all struck down is because of the mercy of God.
All of us, at one time or another, have sought to lie to each other by presenting ourselves in a false light. We’ve promised more than we intended to deliver. We’ve acted like our wealth was our own. We’ve lied to God, and we’ve tested him. So why aren’t we dead? Because of the mercy of God. Because of the blood of Jesus. Because God sent his Son to bless us by turning everyone of us from our wickedness in order that we might live in him and to him and for him. We should still fear. We must not be presumptuous. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us that some of the Corinthians were sick and some had died because they approached the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner, meaning, they did not love the community as they came. I think it’s significant that it’s the young men who carry out the bodies. Ananias and Sapphira are a warning to them: Yes, you live in the Age of Mercy and Grace, but do not presume upon the kindness of God. He is still a consuming fire. And we’re a young church, and we want to be like these young men, like this young church. We want all of the “greats” that show up in this passage. Great power in preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners, which is what this table represents. Great grace in meeting each other’s needs, which is why we come to this table together, with one heart and one soul. Great fear, because the God who sets this table before us is a consuming fire. And we want to worship him with fear, and rejoice in his grace with trembling. We want to Kiss the Son and seek refuge in him. That’s what this table is about.