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Acts

Ananias, Sapphira and the Loving God

Acts  4:32 - 5:16

One of the great stumbling blocks to new Christians in our day is the concept of the jealous God. We have an image of the "loving God" - which is much weaker than the truth, that God is love - and when we read passages like this one, we wonder, "How could a loving God do that?" Let us examine the passage and see:

(Acts 4:32-37 NIV) All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. {33} With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. {34} There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales {35} and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. {36} Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), {37} sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

(Acts 5:1-16 NIV) Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. {2} With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet. {3} Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? {4} Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God." {5} When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. {6} Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. {7} About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. {8} Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" "Yes," she said, "that is the price." {9} Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also." {10} At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. {11} Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. {12} The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. {13} No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. {14} Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. {15} As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. {16} Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.

Background

For us to understand this passage correctly, we must begin with a little history lesson. Our view of land is that it is a possession, a commodity to be bought and sold without much emotion. Yet even at that you can feel an attachment to a place. We lived 16 years in our house at Hawthorne. It may seem silly, but as I walked out the door of that place, I stopped one last time to ask God to bless it, giving its new owners the peace we had known there. (My wife, as far as I know, never looked back and left with a big smile on her face. She did not like that house.)

The Jew of this time would be steeped in the laws of the Old Testament. There was a different view of land: land was held to be a gift from God. At the year of Jubilee it was to be returned, even though this custom was no longer followed. What more natural evidence of a changed life for God that to take the one thing you are sure God has given you, sell it and bring the money into his house?

Christian Communism?

Some may ask, was this not Christian communism? In one sense it was; in another it was not. There is a very big difference between being told, "In order to become a Christian, you must sell your land and bring the money here" and the idea that once you become one you voluntarily decide to do so. It's the distinction between cause and effect.

You can see it here in Barnabas, who is nicknamed "Son of Encouragement." It is not so much that he has to do it, but that it is so encouraging to others. This is the clue: he is not doing this for himself, or for his reputation in the church - he is doing it for others, to encourage them.

Indeed, this is a very good example, as Paul points out to Timothy (perhaps with Barnabas in mind):

(1 Timothy 6:17-19 NIV) Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. {18} Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. {19} In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

You belong to God; but do you belong to each other

The preaching that the church is one is frequent (I've done it myself many times). But it is instructive to consider a question here from Ray Stedman:

Here is where the problem lies with many churches today. There is unity, there is a oneness of spirit, but there is no experience of it in the soul. It is quite possible to come to church and sit together in the pews, united in a physical presence with other Christians, to sing the same hymns and listen to the same message, and relate to God individually, but to have no sense of body life, no sense of belonging to one another. It is possible to come week after week, year after year, and never know the people with whom you worship. When that happens there is no unity in the soul. This is what our younger generation today, in desperation, is trying to tell us. "There is no soul in your services," they say to the church at large, "there is no sense of oneness. You don't belong to each other. You may belong to God, but you don't belong to each other." That is what is lacking today, and what the early church so wonderfully possessed.

The early church was one in heart and mind. We are one in mind and alone in heart.

We agree in mind; we agree in doctrine, our heads go north and south together at the preacher's words - and then we have no life together. We are not one in heart. There is the key problem of our church today. We do not share each others' pains.

It is an unconscious hypocrisy. We did not intend to be hypocrites, it just turned out that way. And anything which pulls us into the lives and pains of others seems to be someone else's problem. It is not so.

God, the Jealous God

All well and good, teacher. But how is this connected to this episode which shows so clearly that God is a jealous God?

Old Testament Examples

God, in the Old Testament, does this sort of thing frequently. In each of these instances, we shall see that the example touches not only upon the jealous God but also the community of Israel:

·         First, consider the story of Achan, who hid something which was to be delivered to God. The Israelites were unable to defeat their enemies - despite the active presence of God - because of his sin.[1]

·         Next, consider the sons of Aaron who offered unauthorized fire at the altar - and were dead by fire from it. They were carried outside the camp for burial, because evil could not be tolerated within that camp.[2]

·         And perhaps most poignant of all was Elisha's retort to Gehazi, who extorted money and clothing from a very willing Namaan. "Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you?"[3]

The Jealous God

So God is a jealous God. Why do we think this so strange? How can love be jealous. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the "lord of terrible aspect," is present; not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way; not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as an artist's love for his work and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father's love for his child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.

·         Love always wants what is best for the beloved. Is it any wonder then that God, who is Love, wants us to be pure, to handle pure things in a pure way and to show that purity to the world?

·         Pure love is always possessive - not in the sense that it can use the beloved, but rather in the sense that the relationship is always unique. No other father, no other mother, no other wife - and no other God.

Great sins against great love

Against such a love there are sins - great sins.

·         Sacrilege. Sacrilege is the trivial use of holy things. You are married in a holy covenant; to take so solemn a vow, for such an important relationship, and then have a "one night stand" - that trivializes your vows. It is a sacrilege against love in the form of marriage; how can you then say it is no great thing?

·         Purity. The pithy proverbialist of the New Testament, James, defines true religion as a combination of purity and good works.[4] One seems inner; one seems outer; both are required.

·         Hypocrisy. It is no surprise, sadly, to see "S and S" Christians. It stands for "Saturday and Sunday"; it is the Christian who on Saturday night feels greatly superior to those around him (because he's such a spiritual guy, of course) and superior the next morning (because he alone is a man of the world, not naïve like these other Christians.)

Counting the cost

Our Lord encouraged us to count the cost of entering into the kingdom. The first unpaid bill in that cost, in our time, is the union of fellowship with our brother Christians. Nothing is compulsory in the church in this aspect; all is voluntary. We look at the voluntary and feel like we've been drafted. Consider your Lord's words well, and how frequently he talks about sharing your worldly wealth in a way far beyond the ways we see today.

Separation of the hypocrites

This passage makes clear one thing: God will separate out the hypocrites from among us, in his good time. We may see this as "distinguishing judgments" (as one ancient author put it) by which God cleans his house. More commonly, we shall know them, as we do all men, by their fruits. The important thing is to be among those who are still in the church. Get real; don't be a hypocrite.

Results for the church

Note the three results of this:

·         "Great fear" came upon the church. Why not? Is not the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? And should you not know the character of the God you worship?

·         "None dared to join"[5] - which means that those who would have used the church as a kind of social club for the truly approved were effectively dissuaded.

·         But there was great power in the church[6] - healing, and true growth.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom - in this instance it also provided a goodly amount of power and growth as well.


[1] Joshua7

[2] Leviticus 10:1-5

[3] 2 Kings 5; this quote is from verse 26.

[4] James 1:27

[5] verses 13-14

[6] verses 15-16

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