As we continue our series of messages from the
book of Acts, this morning we see a new and major development in the life of the
infant church in and around Jerusalem. For the
first three chapters, the new church
of Christ is the
picture of tranquility. In
chapter four, the waters begin to stir when the Jewish leaders begin
their persecution of the
church by commanding the apostles not to preach in Jesus’ name.
As we move further into chapter
four however, we see that the apostles, because of the prayers of the church, continue to preach the Word of God
with boldness. As
we come to chapter five, we see the very first instance of the most prominent ongoing challenge the
church has faced over the past 2000 years--sin.
The two mammoth, historic challenges the church has faced in history are: persecution from without
which began in chapter four, and problems caused by sin from within, which emerges here in chapter five. These are the
two historic battle fronts for the church.
If Satan cannot weaken a local church through persecution from those outside
it, he will shift his attack inside the church, using sin and conflict
to weaken and demoralize her. Or,
if he cannot infest a local body with sin, he will work to erase it by persecution from the world. Having failed in his
attempt to weaken the church in chapter four by persecution from without,
we see him work to corrupt the church from within through two people who act as his unknowing operatives, Ananias
Let’s read the first 11 verses
of chapter five. Luke
writes, “1 But a man
named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan
filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back
for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?
4 While it remained unsold,
did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived
this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came
upon all who heard of it. 6 The
young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing
what had happened. 8 And
Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she
said, “Yes, for so much.” 9
But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10
Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who
heard of these things.”
The story is a familiar one.
Ananias and Sapphira, like others
in the church also have sold property and appear before the
apostles to give away the proceeds from the
sale for distribution among the poor.
But Luke reveals that their primary
concern was not for the poor—it was for themselves—enhancing
their reputation in the
church—making a name for themselves as a very generous couple. After they
sell their property, they
consult together in a premeditated way to keep back some for themselves. As Peter tells Ananias
in verses three and four, they were under no obligation to sell it and
after they sold it, there
was no pressure exerted on them to give away all the
sin of these two is seen in that they
lie to God and the church by claiming to give the
entire amount to the Lord, when in fact they
were keeping back some for themselves.
They were giving a false report of the
percentage of the proceeds of the
sale they were giving to the
church to cause people to think more highly of them.
They wanted to be seen as people who were radically generous—giving away
all their revenue from the
doing that, they were liars and because they
were lying to make themselves appear better than they
were, they were also hypocrites.
This is one of the hardest texts
to read in the New Testament.
Liberal scholars either call
it a legend or try to figure out a 1000 ways to soften the meaning of
Luke’s account here because the plain meaning doesn’t fit with their
understanding of the New Testament as a book of God’s love as oppose
to the Old Testament as a book of God’s wrath.
It doesn’t fit into their theology
of God. Their
God would never kill someone “simply” for misrepresenting the percentage
of profit they were giving to the
most apparent problem with those objections is—there is no evidence
that this was not written by Luke and he writes this account with such clarity that he doesn’t leave any room for
doubt about what happened here; who was behind it and why—this is very straightforward.
The early church culture as we saw in chapter four was characterized by the
fact that the 10% or so of the
people who would have owned private property at this time were moved by the
Spirit, on a voluntary basis, to sell their property and give their
profits to the poor.
As we saw last week, Barnabas—who Luke introduces here, “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” But its not just liberal
theologians who struggle with this text.
This account is hard to hear even for those who take the
Bible as the Word of God--for several reasons.
First, from a purely ethical perspective, we all live in a world where this
kind of deceit is commonplace and it rarely receives any kind of punishment—much less a lethal one. A recent poll has found
that 34% of Americans admit to cheating on their taxes, yet far less
than a thousandth of one percent are ever punished for this misrepresentation. We
swim in a very polluted ethical ocean where very few are ever held accountable for their
deception and so from our deception-ridden context, it can be hard for many to see how this offense—on a purely
ethical level could be not only penalized, but worthy of the death penalty.
On a purely sentimental level, as you think about the
development of the early church, this text is hard to read because this
is where the church loses her innocence.
The truth is—the church never
was innocent but here, for the first time, Luke pictures the
church as being something less than this supernatural, soul-winning, miracle-laden, God-honoring organism. In chapter five, we
see begin to see the dark side of the
church that will dominant so many of Paul’s letters.
And that’s not pleasant because we have all experienced the
seamy side of the church and there
is a natural desire for us to want to preserve this idyllic picture of the
also hard to read because Luke gives his account without any sympathy or sentimental attachment to these
two people God executes. We
live in an age where personal responsibility has more and more given way to the
notion that everyone is a victim of something and God does not treat these
people at all like victims. He
holds them absolutely accountable for their
sin and they pay with their
Luke reports these sobering events in a style that can only be described
as “matter-of-fact.” “Behold, the feet of those who have buried
your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” The perspective is
clearly--two people are full of sin that they express publicly and they
are summarily, immediately executed by God. Period—end of story.
It’s also hard because, although Peter gives Sapphira a chance to repent
before she is executed, it’s not as much of a chance as it could have been.
Peter could have said to her, “I
hate to tell you this Sapphira, but your husband Ananias is dead. God executed him in the same spot on which you are standing.
In fact, you walked right by his grave as
you came in.
He died because he lied to the
Holy Spirit about the
percentage of proceeds you gave away from the sale of your property.
Sapphira, we know that you were part of this. Are
you willing to confess your sin and repent so that you will not be executed as well?” Peter could have said
that, he didn’t. Peter
just asks her to publicly confirm what they had already claimed—that
they sold their land for
such and such an amount. There
a chance to repent here, but Peter is not exerting any unusual effort to spare her from God’s judgment. Her husband Ananias
is given absolutely no chance to repent. No warnings, threats or chances to recant his story are given.
He lies, he dies.
Finally, it’s hard on a personal level because God’s judgment is always scary
in the Bible, especially when it’s administered in lethal doses and
it is especially hard when it is seen being issued in the context of
his blood-bought church—God’s own people where, up to this point in Acts, we have seen nothing but God’s grace. It’s true that “judgment begins with the household of faith…” [1 Pet 4:17] But we don’t really like seeing that played out in real life. It’s perhaps even harder
because, in the previous section where Luke recounts the
believers selling their property and giving it to the
poor, he explains all the radical generosity by proclaiming in verse
33, “…great grace was upon them all.”
As you turn to chapter five, there
is no empowering grace or forgiving grace or mercy for that matter.
It’s a matter of “you
sin, you die”...on the same
this is a violent jolt from what we have read earlier.
In light of how hard this is to read today and even the
response of the early church was also one of shock and fear, why does
God do this? There
are doubtless more reasons than we could cite this morning, but here are two.
judges Ananias and Sapphira to quell the influence of Satan in
Very early in Acts here, we see patterns of response begin that will
continue throughout church history as it relates to these two battle
fronts of the church.
What I mean by that is--when the
church is persecuted from without, the saints look to God in prayer. That is the
response we will see repeatedly both in Acts and the rest of church
has always been a catalyst for prayer and dependency upon God.
And a church that is not God-dependent will, if they
do not repent, often be driven into some sort of persecution or hardship to bring them
into a God-honoring, dependent relationship with God.
That is the lesson of church history.
The response of the church when
Satan enters through sin is also established early on here and that is—judging the
the judgment is not on the
sin only, but on the sinner.
It has the same effect and sets
the stage for church discipline because it brings fear to the
says the church must publically rebuke elders who have fallen into sin
“so that the rest may stand in fear.”[1 Tim 5:20] God’s chosen way of dealing with sin within the
body is to purge it and he shows that dramatically here.
Again, this will be done later on by the
body through the body acting in church discipline.
Jesus teaches in Matthew 18 that
we must discipline the errant brother
or sister. Luke
17:3 puts it about as succinctly as anywhere in the Bible. “If
your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he
repents, forgive him.” Sin
within the body must bring rebuke and God, having taught that through
Jesus, now manifests it in this early instance of public sin in the
this first instance of public sin, he doesn’t leave it to the church;
he takes care of it himself--not in discipline, but in judgment.
Part of the reason the
Reformers all place church discipline as one of the top three or four
purposes of the church is because discipline is what God uses to keep
Satan’s influence in the church in check.
We know that this is part of God’s reason for this incident from verse three. Peter confronts Ananias
in verse three and says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to
lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back
for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” Although Ananias certainly
bears the responsibility for his sin and he pays dearly for it, through
the Spirit, Peter clearly sees the
hand of Satan behind this sin. The
Adversary had certainly been hating the impact the
early church was making on his kingdom and he was waiting for a chance to defile the
bride of Christ. He
sees his chance and tempts these two with spiritual pride seen in their
desire to be seen
as generous. It’s
no accident that his first recorded, successful temptation in the church
is rooted in pride. That’s
how he started out in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, God’s first
expression of his kingdom.
It’s important that we notice Luke’s wording here describing Satan’s influence. He says that Satan
had “filled Ananias’ heart to lie to the Holy Spirit.” We
mustn’t disconnect this from chapter four where in response to the prayer
there, the church was “filled
with the Holy Spirit.” [Same word.] It’s the filling
of the Spirit that prompts
this radical generosity. When an author uses the same word within eight
verses of each other, he wants us to notice that.
The connection is not hard to see.
In the first instance, the
believers are filled with (or, under the influence of) God and practice
extreme sacrifice in their giving.
In the second instance in chapter
five, this married couple is filled with (or, under the influence of)
Satan and they practice deceit and rank hypocrisy.
Luke wants us to see that in both the
good things the church did and the
evil things practiced, both are brought into being through the larger
spiritual world that involves God and the demonic forces of evil. When
the church is under the influence
of God, it practices extreme generosity and in so doing reflects the
kind of generosity God showed when he gave his only Son to die for her.
When believers in the church are
under the influence of Satan, they
lie, reflecting the father
God doesn’t want his bride defiled by the
influence of Satan, so he invests it with the authority to practice
church discipline, as Deuteronomy says to “purge the evil from among you.” In chapter five, he
dramatically judges the sin himself in part to let the
church know just how serious he is about keeping his church pure.
God acts so decisively and powerfully here and in so doing begins the
pattern of what will become church discipline.
Beyond that, we must never forget that it is God’s prerogative to execute
anyone who sins. We
mustn’t forget that sin is by nature a capital crime in God’s court of justice—Sin is the
ultimate cause of death for everyone. Ultimately, it’s our sin that kills us. If we were perfect, we would never die. R.C. Sproul in his
book “The Holiness of God” said this,
death penalty was imposed and is still imposed.
All men die…we are all under the
death penalty for sin.
We are all sitting on death row awaiting
execution. The greatest mass killer of all time was not Adolph Hitler
or Josef Stalin.
The greatest mass killer of all time is Mother
Nature. Everyone falls victim to her.
Mother Nature does not operate independently from God. She
is merely the
avenger of a holy God.”
This is not the only place
in the New Testament where people in church, presumably believers, are
executed for their sin.
In First Corinthians chapter 11, some of the
believers in Corinth were abusing the
Lord’s Table. Verse 22 says they are guilty of “despising
the church of God
humiliating those who have nothing.” Eight verses later Paul prophetically
declares, “That is why many of you are weak and ill and, and some have
These executions weren’t as dramatic as Ananias and Sapphira, but through
the Spirit, Paul clearly establishes a cause/effect relationship between
their sin and their deaths. These believers died
as God’s judgment for their sin of abusing the
Lord’s Table. We
mustn’t ever forget that sin kills. And God judges Ananias and Sapphira for this sin because he has every right to do so as
a holy God who hates sin. As
we’ve said before, the amazing reality under God’s holiness isn’t that
he occasionally judges people for their sin by executing them,
it’s that he allows the average sinner to continue to live an entire
is again right when he says, “We soon
forget that with our first sin we have forfeited all rights to the gift of life.
That I am drawing breath this morning is
an act of divine mercy.
God owes me nothing.” God has every right
to judge Ananias and Sapphira to quell the influence of Satan in the
A second reason God did this could be stated this way:
judges Ananias and Sapphira to remind his people to fear him.
This comes right out of the
we want to know why God did this, all we need to do is see what he accomplished through this.
It’s pretty clear that God does what he does for a reason and so, what is
the result of this act of judgment?
We see it in the church’s response
to both deaths. In
verse five we read, “When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.
And great fear came upon all who heard it.”
We see the same result in response
to Sapphira’s execution in verse 11 where Luke records, “And great fear
came upon the whole church and upon all who
heard of these things.” This fear also spread
outside the church to anyone who heard of this incident. We know that God knew
that this would be the impact of his act of judgment and so it’s reasonable
to assume that he did this to remind his church that he is to be feared.
We know that this fear is not a cowering terror.
First John chapter four tells us in 4:17,
“17 By this is love perfected
with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as
he is so also are we in this world. 18 There
is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has
not been perfected in love.”
This fear engendered by the deaths
of Ananias and Sapphira is not a cowering terror rooted in a fear of eternal judgment.
But it was an expression of a reverent awe toward God.
In this current era of church history where God’s holiness is so often wrongly
obscured by an imbalanced understanding of the love of God, we need
these texts in the New and
Old Testament to remind us—“don’t mess
with God!—don’t play games with him—he is not mocked—don’t test his grace
with presumptuous sin—fear him.” That truth is not the least bit incompatible
with having a loving, intimate relationship with God.
The same apostle who leaned against the
Lord’s bosom in the upper room in John 13—the
apostle John, also fell at his feet as though dead when he met his glorified King in Revelation chapter one. You can and should
be both intimate with, and in awe of God at the same time. Do you know what that
is called?...“worship.” Being
intimate with God doesn’t mean to relate to him to as an overstuffed, heavenly Teddy bear as some seem to think
fearing him does not mean that you are afraid to come into his presence and enjoy great intimacy with him. It simply means that
you know just who it is with whom you are being intimate—our God, who is a consuming fire.
God wants BOTH our fear and our intimacy.
The cross is the perfect union
of God’s holy hatred of sin and his love for us.
Because God loves us, he sent his only Son to the
because God is holy, he had to punish our sin in Christ.
Christ crucified is the ultimate
marriage of God’s holiness and his love. If you are here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ—have not come to him
and admitted that there is no way you could ever be acceptable to him
on your own—could never be good enough for him.
If you haven’t confessed that you are a sinner and your only hope is Jesus
dying on the cross to pay the
penalty of your sin, then do that today.
Meet this holy God—see your sin and run to the
cross for forgiveness. If
you refuse to repent of your sin and come to Christ, then only the
fearful judgment of a holy God awaits you. If you turn from your sin and place your trust in Christ who paid the
penalty of your sin on the cross, then
you can know, not only God’s holiness, but also his love for you as a newly adopted child.
For those of us who know Jesus and love him, perhaps the
biggest reason this text is so hard to read is because we identify so strongly with Ananias and Sapphira. They were deceptive
to make themselves look more spiritual than they
were to impress other people.
How many of us haven’t done that at some level?
You know, telling someone that you’ve read the
Bible through for years—2 years—the plural is still accurate, but do
you think the person assumed you meant two years?
Telling someone you have spent hours in prayer for them
when it was actually only several minutes. Or, communicating things to others to make
them believe that your walk with God is fine, when really it’s in a
shambles and you are in a deep struggle with sin or doubt or discouragement.
God hates lukewarmness, but if the
gospels and this story are any indication, he hates hypocrisy even more.
If you have played the hypocrite
through any form of deceit, allow God to use this story to convict you and if you are not walking closely with
God, stop pretending you are. That’s
what the body of Christ is for.
Ask for someone to pray with you and hold you accountable—talk to a trusted
friend whose walk you respect, or make an appointment with one of the
pastoral staff—get help. James
4:6 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
There is no reason to pretend in the
body of Christ—God hates that and it will only widen the gulf you feel
between you and him. May
God give all of us the grace to be real about where we are with Christ
so that God can use that truthfulness to set us free from what holds us.