The In-Between Years - Part 24
Series: The In-Between Years
January 24, 2021
The In-Between Years — Part 24
Last week we finished chapter 4 in our Acts study with another one of those church snapshots where Luke lets us see what things were like among those first Christians: They were of one heart and soul, they didn’t consider what they had as their own, and they went about proclaiming a savior who had come back from the dead. Put another way, they enjoyed incredible unity, unrestrained generosity, and an unshakable testimony to a risen Jesus.
What a beautiful and convicting picture. It’s kind of like when I look at snapshots from when our girls were little. Makes we wish I could go back. Luke’s snapshots make us long for community like that. Here’s a newsflash for us today: that early church, as pristine and innocent as it was, wasn’t without flaws.
Let’s back up a bit and then move into chapter five and see why…
34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:34–37 (ESV)
This spirit of unrestrained generosity and grace impacted a man of some means name Joseph, who would come to bear the nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” He’ll play a big role in the missionary enterprises of Paul. Here, where we’re first introduced to him, we see him selling some of his property to support the ministry of the church in Jerusalem.
The implication is that he owned a plot of land, sold it for so much, and gave the entire proceeds to the work of the church. This part of the story really should be in chapter 5 because Luke connects it in 5:1 with a “but.”
But even though Barnabas wanted no fanfare or recognition, this unrestrained act of generosity and I’m guessing the attention that went with it didn’t go unnoticed by a couple in the church named Ananias and Sapphira…
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
Commentators have went wild trying to figure out exactly what happened here, making some pretty big speculations. Now I’ve never claimed to be smart — well maybe 20 years ago — better to say I don’t claim to be smart these days but it’s simple and clear what happened.
This couple in the church saw what Barnabas did and wanted to duplicate it so they sold a plot of land they had and laid it at the apostles’ feet to demonstrate an act of unrestrained generosity as well. Problem was, they let everyone think they had given all the proceeds just like Barnabas when they didn’t.
This is pure speculation on my part now, but I can’t help but think they might have been a tad jealous of Barnabas. No doubt everyone was talking about it. A person of means was so moved by his devotion to the church (community of faith not building) he gave a gift to the fellowship that really cost him something.
Maybe Sapphira got tired of all the other wives fawning over Barnabas’ wife, so she went to Ananias and said we’ve got that plot of land we own let’s sell it and give to the church. But I still want to remodel the kitchen so let’s not give it all. What they don’t know won’t hurt them.
It’s probably not fair to blame the wife though, is it? It could very well have been instigated by Ananias. Maybe he saw the prestige and attention it brought Barnabas and was jealous of that. I’ve seen fellows do this myself. They give and serve to get attention so they can weasel their way into leadership and get more recognition and attention which they crave. It took me three years one time to figure out that very situation at one church I pastored. That didn’t end well.
Again, this is pure speculation but I can’t help but think pride and greed were behind their little ruse. One commentator has his take of why they did this…
As soon as revival comes there will be some people who are not so much interested in holiness as in a reputation for holiness. They want to be part of the Christian community, and if the Christian community is characterized by sharing and love and demonstrated power of the Spirit, they want that, too, but they want it in a kind of domesticated dosage so they have the reputation of being a part but are not consumed by it themselves.
Boy, Ananias and Sapphira will regret this. Prepare yourselves, what happens next is hard…
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 man but to God.”
Somehow, Peter was given insight into their deception. Most believe it was the Spirit who revealed it to him. Though not the norm, it’s not unheard of for God to do things like that even these days.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great prince of preachers of a long past era, told the story of how once when he was preaching he found himself calling out someone for their sin in the church that day he didn’t know. Out of nowhere he began talking about how this man was “cheating his employer, stealing from him, and apparently getting away with it.” He called on him to repent or be found out.
Spurgeon was thrown off guard and a little worried after it happened. To his surprise a young man came up after the service all tore up saying, “Please, don’t tell my master. I’ll give it all back.” The man repented, and gave all he took back. Spurgeon was left in awe that he had been given a ‘word of knowledge’ about someone he didn’t know.
If it makes you feel better, know this has never happened to me and I doubt it will. So Peter uncovers Ananias’ sin. Verse 5…
5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
One Bible scholar translates verse 5 this way: “5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. Everyone who heard about it was scared out of their wits.”
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. Acts 5:1–11 (ESV)
This is hard, folks. It’s jarring in light of all that comes before it. It seems out of place. This is so uncomfortable my go to reaction is to make light of it. I really shouldn’t. Not only does it make us stumble in the narrative, it downright scares us. It leaves us with questions.
I’m not going to pretend I can answer all those questions, but here’s a few things to consider.
Consider the peculiar and unrepeatable time in which this happened.
Our pentecostal brothers and sisters hate it when we say this — and we Baptists take it too far for sure — but much of what Luke writes about in his second volume were peculiar to a time of transition when it comes to the epochs of God’s plans. Because of that they aren’t generally repeatable.
God had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and from them he raised up his chosen people the Israelites who were led by Moses and through Moses came the covenant and law. All this pointed forward to the day when that covenant would hand off to the next epoch of God’s plan to set all things back to rights with the new covenant, brought on by the coming of Jesus, his death, and resurrection. With that transition, where once the nation of Israel was God’s chosen people in the spotlight, now they were enveloped into the age of the church (the church did not replace them, folks, the church is not spiritual Israel).
You have to expect things to be unusual and peculiar during that hand off. Again, many things we Baptists say are a part of the unrepeatable really aren’t, and many things our Pentecostal brothers and sisters say aren’t are.
So what about this being a peculiar time is at play here? When I look at those pictures of my children when they were babies, it hurts because that was such a special and unrepeatable time. When they were that little I had to take extra precautions to keep them safe.
I think maybe that’s what’s going on here. God dealt with Ananias and Sapphira’s sin so severely because the church needed extra precautions in its infancy.
Another thing to consider is that this was an act of fatherly discipline on God’s part.
Some commentators try and make the case that they Ananias and Sapphira were not saved, and that’s why God snuffed them out. I don’t buy that. The preceding snapshot doesn’t allow for that. Luke tells us “the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” The entire community of faith at that time — in the church’s infancy — was legit. Not perfect, obviously, but legit. Later on the NT writers warn us about imposters, false teachers, and such infiltrating the church, but at that unusual and peculiar time I don’t think they were around.
And then there’s this. The writer of Hebrews tells us…
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Hebrews 12:3–8 (ESV)
The fact that God did deal with them is an indication that they were his children. He loved the church and them too much to let this go unchecked. As hard as it is for us modern, Western Christians to see it this way, what God did with Ananias and Sapphira was an act of love. Where we may see it as God angrily smiting this couple, God sees it as calling them home early to be with him to protect them and the church from further harm. It was really an act of mercy.
Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth…
32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 1 Corinthians 11:32 (ESV)
If I’m right here, we have the first instance of church discipline. Which this is something we don’t like to talk about at all. Read the whole NT, though, and you’ll discover one of the marks of the church was holding each other accountable. God disciplines his children and often involves the church, the community of faith, in that.
Slight rabbit trail here. Bet you’re wondering if God still takes out his children today. I’ve heard stories. So he very well may. But again, even if he does it’s out of love for his children.
We don’t have time to dig any deeper into this, maybe one day we will. Here’s one last thing to consider.
What happened with Ananias and Sapphira points to God’s holiness and his desire for his church’s purity.
Going back to God’s epochs and the handoffs related to them I mentioned earlier, we know that the coming of Jesus signaled a new era of how God would dwell with his people. Up until then he had dwelled in the temple, a holy place. All the rules and rituals associated with it had to do with the proper way of approaching a holy God in his house.
Jesus comes as God-in-the-flesh and takes our place on the cross. When he dies something unusual happened in the temple…
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. Matthew 27:51 (ESV)
Many scholars believe the the curtain or the veil mentioned here was the barrier in the temple that surrounded the holy of holies, the place where God’s presence dwelled. This tearing had to signify something. I believe it signified that God would now dwell with his people in a new way. Paul mentions this new way…
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 (ESV)
God now dwells in his people through the Spirit, making them — us — living temples. The church is the ekklesia, the assembly of his people, making the church the ultimate manifestation of the presence of God, the temple made without hands made up of the body of Christ.
Because of that, God takes his church seriously, far more than we do. As I was preparing this message I wondered why in the world Luke included this and how in the world the early church seemed to just accept it as normative. It dawned on me that every Christ-follower at this time was a Jew. Their Bible (our OT) was full of similar stories where people lost their lives when they messed with things pertaining to God’s holiness. This made perfect sense to them.
As much as Jesus shows us God’s infinite love in living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, he is still God come to us in the flesh. As much as God is our loving heavenly father, he’s not our overly permissive grandfather. We must be careful to never domesticate God. Jesus is not a tame lion you know. The God of the universe is not safe, folks, but he’s good.
Conclusion: Let me close with the words of NT Wright, who I think, now may have surpassed Tim Keller as most quoted by me…
We don’t like those stories, of course, any more than we like Acts 5, but we can’t have it both ways. If we watch with excited fascination as the early church does wonderful healings, stands up to the bullying authorities, makes converts to right and left, and lives a life of astonishing property-sharing, we may have to face the fact that if you want to be a community which seems to be taking the place of the Temple of the living God you mustn’t be surprised if the living God takes you seriously, seriously enough to make it clear that there is no such thing as cheap grace. If you invoke the power of the holy one, the one who will eventually right all wrongs and sort out all cheating and lying, he may just decide to do some of that work already, in advance. God is not mocked, as Paul puts it (Galatians 6:7). Though we sincerely hope he will not normally act with such sudden and swift judgment… we either choose to live in the presence of the God who made the world, and who longs passionately for it to be set right, or we lapse back into some variety or other of easy-going paganism, even if it has a Christian veneer to it. Holiness, in other words, is not an optional extra. How God chooses to make that point is in the last analysis up to him, since he is the only one who knows the human heart. But the earliest Christians were quite clear. To name the name of Jesus, and to invoke the holy spirit, is to claim to be the Temple of the living God, and that is bound to have consequences.
You would think such a heavy and troubling message would force me to forego a call for you to become one of God’s children, to become a living temple in which his Spirit dwells. Preachers can’t preach this and expect folks to get saved, right?
You know in my experience with children over the years — both other peoples’ and my own — I’ve discovered that they love and respect the most the ones who lovingly and carefully discipline them. Not to say I’ve I’ve got the parenting thing down, folks. Just an observation.
Look at what happened right after this (which we’ll cover next time)…
12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. Acts 5:12–16 (ESV)
So how about it? Are you ready to take God up on his offer to save all those who call on his name?
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