Not To Be Trifled With
In our study of the Book of Acts, we have come to see the early Church as a model Church. We have come to appreciate how this Church has set a pattern of righteous habits that should be emulated by every subsequent church. Yet, we learn here in chapter 5, that the early Church was not a perfect church. The early Church battled evil and hypocrisy from within, just as we do today.
Nonetheless, the early Church’s response to sin is a striking contrast to today’s ‘shoulder-shrugging’ response to hypocrisy in the church. More importantly, we read in Acts 5 about how God views, and how God judges, hypocrisy within His Church. Commentator, Howard Marshall, writes “this account introduces us to a different world of thought from that of today. It is a world in which sin is (dealt with) seriously”(Marshall, Acts, 110).
Before we examine the sobering example of Ananias and Sapphira, we would be wise to look at the more encouraging example of Christian behaviour, found at the end of chapter 4. Luke returns our mind there when he begins chapter 5 with the word, “But”. This tells us that what we are about to read will contrast the account which preceded it.
Luke ends chapter 4 by telling us about a man named Barnabas, “who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet”(4:36,37).
There was a great deal of generosity in the early Church. These individuals were not clinging to their personal possessions, but they were freely giving to those in need. And, every indication is that these donations were voluntary. There is no compulsion to give here. Giving to those in need appears to be the natural response to belonging to “the company of those who believed (in Christ)”(4:32-35).
We would do well to follow this example as we are made aware of the needs of our congregation. There may be times when we become aware of particular needs of certain individuals, or families, within our congregation. There may be times when we are made aware of the need to, for example, put a new roof on the church.
Hearing about the need should be enough. We would do well to follow the example of the early Church: Their example is generosity without compulsion.
In chapter 4, we learn from a positive example—we learn generosity without compulsion. But in chapter 5, we learn from a negative example—we learn what not to do when giving money to the church.
Like Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property for the purpose of giving money to the Church. But here is the difference: Ananias and Sapphira kept some of the proceeds for themselves while leading the apostles to believe that they were getting the entire amount.
Peter, who apparently had some supernatural insight into the matter, responds to Ananias, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? While (the land) remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God”(5:3,4).
So you see, a sin against the Church is regarded as a sin against God. And, subsequently, the judgment for this sin comes from God, “as (Ananias) heard (Peter’s) words, he fell down and (died); and great fear came upon all who heard of it. And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him”(5:5,6).
Three hours later, Sapphira arrives on the scene not knowing what had happened to her husband. Sapphira repeats the deception of her husband and suffers the same fate: instant death.
At least two questions come to mind, and the second is harder to answer than the first. The first question we are likely to ask is, ‘What, precisely, was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira?’ And secondly, ‘Why was Ananias and Sapphira struck down dead because of this sin?’
In thinking about the nature of Ananias and Sapphira’s sin, we must remember that they had every right to keep all of the proceeds from the sale of their property. Belonging to the Christian Church did not obligate them to sell their property, nor did selling their property obligate them to give the Church any—let alone all--of the proceeds.
I mean, can you imagine: We’re sharing a cup of lemonade after service, and you tell me that you have sold your cottage for $300,000. ‘That’s great!’, I say to you. ‘Would you like your $300,000 to go into the Minister’s discretionary fund, or would you like it to be applied against the church’s general expenses?’ Surely, such a question would cause you to question my sanity!
We understand what the early Church understood: that giving to the church is a voluntary exercise. Nonetheless, the example of the early Church calls us to be generous. And the example of Ananias and Sapphira warns us against giving to the church in a dishonourable manner.
Their sin was not they kept some of the money, but their sin was deception by indicating to the apostles that they were giving all of the proceeds. Their sin was that they were dishonest in their dealings with the church leaders.
Bible commentator, John Stott, summarizes the sin of Ananias and Sapphira by saying, “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it”(Stott, Acts, 109).
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was that their gift to the church lacked honesty and integrity. Moreover, we learn from Peter that a sin against the Church is tantamount to sin against the Holy Spirit—sin against God Himself.
Ananias and Sapphira mistakenly believed that this money transaction involved only them and the church leaders. It appears that they failed to recognize the real presence of the Holy Spirit in this transaction. Or perhaps they believed the Holy Spirit was real, but that He wouldn’t really punish them. Perhaps they had a view of God that said, ‘It doesn’t matter how devious you are, God always tolerates, God always forgives.’
I fear that this notion of the Holy Spirit prevails in the Christian Church today. The Bible presents a balanced view of God’s love and wrath, but since we know that sermons about God’s wrath are highly unpopular we seldom speak of the justice of God, or hear it preached from the pulpit. As a result, when we emphasize the love of God, divorced from the holiness of God, we end up with a skewed view of God’s grace. We end up with an incomplete portrait of God.
Friends, the Bible reveals that HOLINESS is central to WHO GOD IS, and subsequently, worship is serious business. Make no mistake. When we sing, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’ we are declaring sacred truth, and we must not do this flippantly or without thinking about what this means.
We are reminded of the serious nature of worship in the death of Aaron’s sons (Nadab and Abihu); we learn of God’s passion for His holiness when He says, “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honoured”(Lev.10:1-3). And in the death of Ananias and Sapphira we learn that God wants His people to fear hypocrisy.
I hear the objection of some of you, ‘Isn’t capital punishment a bit severe for these transgressions? Why was Ananias and Sapphira struck down because of their sin?’
I cannot adequately answer this for you. I admit, Scripture reveals that God has tolerated much worse than this. Yet, before we put God on the dock, before we take the position of God’s judge, let us remember who is the Potter and who is the clay in this relationship.
God is loving, yes. God is merciful, yes. But God is also holy, holy, holy. And, in the application of this holiness, what is revealed is how seriously God regards the purity of the relationship He has with His people.
God is forgiving, yes, but He is no doormat. God is not to be trifled with. And service to His church must be done with utmost integrity.
Let us heed the example of Barnabas—let us be generous without compulsion. And let us learn from the sin of Ananias and Sapphira—when we execute transactions in the church, when we serve Christ in the church, may we be ever mindful of the presence of the Holy Spirit, who can read the intentions of our heart.
May we be ever mindful of the nature of the God we worship: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty . . . God in three Persons, blessed Trinity! Amen.