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"Great . . . Fear!"

MESSAGE FOR March 21, 2010 FROM ACTS 5:1-11

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          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 and Sapphira.

          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 proceeds.  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 sale.  In 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 Lord.  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.[1]  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 church.  It’s 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 lives.  And 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 is 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 day.  Again, 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.  First, God judges Ananias and Sapphira to quell the influence of Satan in the church.  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 history.  Persecution 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 sin.  Here, 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 body.  Paul 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 church.  In 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 of lies.
          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, “…the 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.”[2] 
         
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 died.”  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 lifetime.  Sproul 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.”[3]  God has every right to judge Ananias and Sapphira to quell the influence of Satan in the church.
          A second reason God did this could be stated this way:  God judges Ananias and Sapphira to remind his people to fear him.  This comes right out of the text.  If 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 today.  And 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 cross.  But 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. 


[1] http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=135271

[2] Sproul, The Holiness of God,  Tyndale, Wheaton, 1985, p.150.

[3] Sproul, 1985, p.164.

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