"Fooling God a Fatal Mistake"
April 20, 2008 Acts 5:1-16
A Bit of a Test
"Integrity", it's said, "is who you are when no one else is looking." Situations arise in life that test our integrity. Many times it would be easy to take a shortcut supposing nobody would ever find out. But the Lord is watching and knows whether we're honouring Him by our integrity, living in the fear of God, OR whether we're fudging - taking a shortcut.
Wednesday was a bit of a test for me - literally. I had bought some fasteners and variety of drill bits at the hardware store in preparation for the Youth Park ramp-repair bee on Saturday. One of the bits was marked 2.79 though the hanger-price was 4.19. The staff were very helpful in accompanying me to find the fasteners and telling me which row the bits were on. I checked out and, once out in the car, double-checked the receipt to see if the bit had been rung in at the cheaper price. The other bits were there, but no sign of that one! Instead of costing me 2.79 I'd gotten a free bit! It was tempting to just drive off as it was already past time for my hospital duty, but I went in and paid for the other bit, and the staff thanked me for my honesty. In retrospect, considering their helpfulness, it would have been extra wicked to take advantage of their error.
So in life, tests arise that are far bigger than 'free' $2.79 drill bits. Perhaps we're tempted to not declare something as we file our income tax - that could make a difference in the hundreds or thousands of dollars! A classmate leaves their exam answer sheet in a location that's easy to glance at. A relative asks us why we didn't come and it would be easy to lie to make a better excuse. Our choices at such moments reveal, not just our integrity, but whether we really live in awe of God as He deserves.
Today we meet a couple who agreed together to take some shortcuts morally speaking, but discovered it was a deadly mistake.
We're not told much about the background of Ananias and Sapphira; we can presume they were 'new Christians' because the church was still scarcely weeks old. Ananias' name means "God is gracious" - a strange counterpoint to Ananias' actual behavious. Sapphira's name is related to "sapphire", and in the Hebrew, 'beautiful' (maybe she was 'drop-dead gorgeous'!). Yet whatever they were on the outside, they lacked in ethics. Between them they cooked up a scheme that they thought would reward them materially while advancing them socially and in the church.
For context, you need to back up to the end of chapter 4 of Acts. In the young sect called at that time 'The Way', the Holy Spirit was moving people to sell possessions as needed in order to provide for the poorest members of the church. Joseph, nicknamed Barnabas ('Son of Encouragement') by the apostles, sold a field and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet, as did many others (4:35f). The generosity of these givers must have made quite an impression.
Now Ananias and Sapphira cooked up a little scheme that they supposed would land them a lot of respect without all the cost. The set-up involved selling a plot of land just like some of the other wealthier people had done. But instead of bringing all the money and putting it at the apostles' feet, they decided in agreement with each other to guard a dirty little secret. They would keep back some of the proceeds for themselves, while making it seem as if they were really contributing all the proceeds of the sale. It was a cover-up! They thought they could have their cake and eat it too. Who would know it wasn't really the full amount? Their conniving collusion would ensure that nobody else would really find out the whole story. Set-up; cover-up; and hoist-up - other followers of the way were becoming "highly regarded by the people" (v13) - Ananias and Sapphira too wanted to be held in high esteem, made much of. What better way than to 'buy' your way into the upper echelons - and secretly at a discount!
So they perpetrated their private pecuniary plot. They sold the property, and Ananias brought a portion of the money, and put it at the apostles' feet, letting on it was the full amount. There's just one thing they weren't counting on: the apostle Peter's supernatural perception. The Holy Spirit was giving him the gift of discernment. 5:3, "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?" How did he know - had somebody told him? No, God had just shown it to Peter - as He would soon be cluing him in to other things he couldn't know naturally, like the coming of the messengers from Cornelius in chapter 10(19f). What mortals do in secret, God can broadcast to whomever He chooses. Jesus said, "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you"; and, "What you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roof-tops" (Mt 6:4; Lk 12:3).
Peter didn't just identify the sinful action, he diagnosed the inner reality of Ananias - "Satan has so filled your heart..." There are at least 3 identifiable failings in the wickedness of the culpable couple.
It started with JEALOUSY. Ananias and Sapphira were envious of Barnabas and the other generous folk who sold their lands so the proceeds could be distributed amongst the needy. The husband and wife wanted to look good, to enjoy that same honour yet without making the sacrifice. You can see the same force at work in the high priest and his associates as they heard of all the wonderful miracles God was doing through the apostles and the early church: v17, they "were filled with jealousy".
Back in Leviticus 10, in the early community of the Israelites following the Exodus from Egypt, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu were quite likely jealous of their father and uncle Moses. At the end of chapter 9, when Moses and Aaron performed their duties at the Tent of Meeting, fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burn offering - amazing! Before you know it, next thing, Nadab and Abihu are taking unauthorized incense and offering it before the Lord, contrary to His instruction. They wanted to get in on the act - why should Moses and Aaron get all the fun and prestige? But fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them - whoosh, sizzle, poof! Moses reminded their shocked father Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: 'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honoured.'" (Lev 10:3) Jealousy tries to take some of the honour that belongs to another and appropriate that undeservingly to ourself. Woe to those who would rob the Lord of the honour He deserves!
John Wesley's wife Mary was extremely jealous of her husband. His work set him in the position of friend and counsellor to many women. Among his helpers and in the institutions that sprang up under his care, women were employed, and for his insanely jealous wife, each one was an object of deadly suspicion. Sally Ryan, for example, the housekeeper at one of his orphanages, was a woman with a past. She was at this time only thirty-three, but she had three husbands living and was separated from them all. Wesley was in constant correspondence with her, a fact which kindled his wife to fury. She stole Wesley's correspondence to satisfy her doubts. She would travel a hundred miles to see who his companions were at a particular stage of his preaching tour. Her fury threw her sometimes into paroxysms of mad violence and sometimes into acts of almost incredible treachery. Such a shame brought on simply by jealousy!
Back to our other couple - Ananias and Sapphira. Besides jealousy, another influence Satan injected into their heart was GREED. V3, Peter points out to Ananias, "you...have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land..." Same verb as back in v2, "With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest..." The lexicon says to 'keep back' means "to withdraw covertly and appropriate for one's own use." Peter checks it with Sapphira in v8 when he asks, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" and she says yes. But the whole price wasn't there - they'd pocketed some on the sly. They'd given in to greed. Now, remember, nobody had said they had to give the entire amount. Peter emphasizes in v4 that the giving was totally voluntary, the property belonged to Ananias before it was sold, and the money was at his disposal afterward. Donations were totally voluntary. But greed made the couple choose to give a portion AS IF it were the whole shebang.
Love of money is a dangerous thing; writing to Timothy, Paul says, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1Ti 6:10) Ananias and Sapphira put their hope in uncertain wealth rather than hoping in God - it became an idol, a trap for them.
An old method for catching raccoons is to place a piece of foil inside a smal1 barred box that is staked to the ground. When a raccoon comes by, he reaches his paw into the box to get the foil. But, once he has grasped it, his paw changes shape and will not fit back through the bars on th box. Many times a raccoon would rather give up his freedom and perhaps his life--just for the sake of a shiny but useless piece of foil.
The things that 'glister' - that become the focus for greed in this life - are not worth much from the viewpoint of eternity. The portion of money Ananias and Sapphira kept back wasn't worth a thing once they'd died. They jeopardized their relationship with God all for a useless piece of foil.
Third, Satan filled their hearts with a willingness to LIE TO GOD. V3, Peter says, "You have lied to the Holy Spirit..." V4, "You have not lied to men but to God." And to Sapphira in v9, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?" This was the deadliest deception of all. Jealousy and greed, dangerous as they are, can be forgiven. But lying to God - testing His Spirit, rebelling outright - comes close to the unpardonable sin. Jesus in Mk 3:29 warned that those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit "will never be forgiven; [they are] guilty of an eternal sin."
Lying to God is akin to rebellion, thumbing our nose at the Almighty. The author of Hebrews 3(12f,17) draws to our attention those who disobeyed God after the Exodus had a "sinful, unbelieving heart"; they were "hardened by sin's deceitfulness" and rebelled in the wilderness. Their bodies fell in the desert as a result. Beware letting your heart turn away from the living God to the point you can out-and-out lie to Him!
If we think we can lie to God - if we suppose we can 'put one over on' the Almighty - we're only deceiving ourselves. God desires truth in the inner parts (Ps 51:6). Be honest with God.
Do we try to deceive God in little areas of life? A bank employee was due for a good promotion. One day at lunch the president of the bank happened to be standing behind the clerk in the cafeteria. Unbeknownst to the clerk, the president saw the clerk slip two pats of butter under his slice of bread so they wouldn't be seen by the cashier. That little act of dishonesty cost the clerk his promotion. Just a few pennies' worth of butter made the difference. The bank president reasoned that if an employee cannot be trusted in the little things, he can't be trusted at all.
How about you? Are there any areas in which you're trying to 'slip one past' God? Ananias and Sapphira found that trying to con God was a fatal mistake. You'd better be truthful with the One who searches heart and soul to weigh and expose our motives (Prov 16:2; 1Cor 4:5).
The Effect of the Rebuke
When Ananias and then Sapphira were rebuked by Peter, Luke records they immediately "fell down and died". The fallout of this episode was significant - both in FEAR and PHENOMENA. To have two people struck dead so suddenly caught everyone's attention. Vv5,11 state "great fear seized all who heard what had happened...Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." Nobody dared treat God lightly or with contempt when a person's life could be undone just like that! V13 "No one else dared join" the believers - although more and more men and women believed in the Lord and became Christians (14). God certainly had their attention!
Do we take God seriously enough today? By our living as followers of Jesus, by our words and witness - do we promote fear of God Almighty and concern for one's eternal destiny? Are people given any cause to pause and ponder rather than pursue this world's passing pleasures?
When God gets a hold of your life - now or at judgment - He means business. If we say we're a Christian but don't really allow for His awesomeness in our decisions, we may be asking for some serious attention-getting. There is less difference between New Testament and Old Testament theology than some people would have you suppose. What happened to Ananias and Sapphira catches your breath, but it's similar to what Paul talks about in the familiar passage we read regularly in conjunction with the Lord's Supper from 1Corinthians 11(29ff): "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. [Did you catch that? Paul's suggesting several have actually become sick and died because of their casual attitude.] But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world." (1Co 11:29-32)
Falling down and dying in the case of Ananias and Sapphira can be understood as an example of the Lord's startling judgment and discipline. It's not necessarily condemnation, but it's certainly discipline. The Lord as a heavenly Father disciplines those he loves, so we may come to share His holiness.
Jesus as our High Priest has done a wonderful thing by dying in our place, taking the punishment due us sinners, so we might instead have imputed to us His righteousness, and confidently enter the Most Holy Place by His blood (Heb 10:19). But that doesn't mean we should treat salvation lightly, or suppose we can 'get away with' wrongdoing. Sin is offensive to God and has serious consequences. Hebrews 10(26f,31) warns,"If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God....It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
So, fear of God was one aspect of the fallout. The other was marvelous PHENOMENA showing God's saving/wholeness-bringing power. 5:12,15f: "The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. ...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. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed."
Is there a connection here between the powerful phenomena and the breath-taking fear of the Almighty? When we appraise God more truly in His awesomeness, do we not allow Him more room to work His way in our experience, and the woe of the world around us? Some churches today may be anemic because they've forgotten how to adequately revere God as the supernatural Spirit He is. So they default into 'do-it-yourself' religion. However the true measure of holiness is not what WE can do for God in our own strength, but how awesomely the Lord will work through us as we trust Him and rest in Him to accomplish things that are obviously beyond our ability.
What really catches people's attention is not human 'good works' but God showing up as His people serve Him with trust and obedience. The NIV Life Application Bible comments on 5:14: "What makes Christianity attractive? It is easy to be drawn to churches because of programs, good speakers, size, beautiful facilities, or fellowship. People were attracted to the early church by expressions of God's power at work, the generosity, sincerity, honesty, and unity of the members, and the character of the leaders. Have our standards slipped? God wants to add believers to his church, not just newer and better programs or larger and fancier facilities." May it be so! Let's pray.