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Life of Peter

Drop Dead

Acts 4:32 - 5:16

Lesson audio

We now come to one of the stranger passages of the New Testament.  If this happened in our day, perhaps our sermons would not be so meek and mild.

Acts 4:32-5:16 NASB  And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.  (33)  And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.  (34)  For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales  (35)  and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.  (36)  Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement),  (37)  and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.  (5:1)  But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,  (2)  and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he 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 some of the price of the land?  (4)  "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."  (5)  And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it.  (6)  The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.  (7)  Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  (8)  And Peter responded to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?" And she said, "Yes, that was the price."  (9)  Then Peter said to her, "Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.(10)  And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  (11)  And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.  (12)  At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico.  (13)  But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.  (14)  And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number,  (15)  to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them.  (16)  Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.

Sacrilege

Definition

The concept of sacrilege is one which has been often neglected in the evangelical churches. Indeed, many such churches make it a point to proclaim that there is no such thing as a sacred object. Throughout the history of Christianity this has been a distinctly minority view. Sacrilege is directed irreverence.

·         It may be directed at a person. This is more common in churches which have priests and bishops, but it must be admitted that even the humblest of pastors bears a certain dignity which should be respected. Interestingly, most of the sacrilege directed at a person in the evangelical churches comes from the person himself. We have lost the sense that the pastor is a representative of the Lord God Almighty; the pastor himself is often foremost in making fun of this concept.

·         It may be directed at a place. This is something the Jew of Peter's time would understand clearly; we have only to think of Christ driving out the moneychangers to understand his attitude towards sacrilege directed at the Temple. We may have lost the sense too; graffiti seems to be well tolerated.

·         It may be directed at a thing. Certain items are set aside for the use, exclusively, of the church. These things are sacred — that's what the word means, set aside. When these things are treated with irreverence, that is sacrilege. If someone picks up a communion plate cover and uses it as a Frisbee, that is sacrilege.

The reader who is Roman Catholic may find these explanations both simplistic and unnecessary. The evangelical reader will understand the need for the explanations.

Sacred Money

It may strike the evangelical reader as being a bit odd that any sum of money could possibly be considered sacred. Indeed, we may ask why this action by Ananias and Sapphira was considered sacrilege. Consider these points:

·         First, there is the Jewish view of land. To the Orthodox Jew land was not simply a commodity to be bought and sold. Rather, it was a gift from God who remained its ultimate owner. Though it was no longer practiced, the Old Testament specified that land could be redeemed even after it had been sold. So the proceeds from selling land would carry something of a sacred aura to start with.

·         It's just possible that Ananias was tempted by the example of Barnabas. Given this attitude towards land, it is likely that Barnabas, in the process of giving the proceeds from the sale of his land, was greatly praised by the congregation. It would be viewed as a significant good work. The temptation is to seek the same reputation without the same sacrifice.

·         There is also a sense of what has been called Christian communism. The church at this time experienced that ferver which enables its members to sacrifice on behalf of of each other. This is something which seems to be singularly missing in the modern church. The late Ray Stedman put it this way:

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.

Testing God

A concept from the Old Testament, quoted by Christ himself in his reply to Satan during the temptation in the wilderness, is that you are not put the Lord God to the test.[1] The concept is rather an inelastic one. It means that you are not to presume upon God's behavior, except as he has commanded you to do so. The most common example in modern life concerns forgiveness. The argument goes something like this: God is a loving God. He is a forgiving God. Therefore, I will do as I please, sin to my heart's content, and God will forgive me. You wouldn't accept that argument from your children; what makes you think God will take it from you? This is a form of testing God.

Now, perhaps, you can see the sacrilege. Ananias proclaims to the world that the entire price of the land is dedicated to God. In other words, it's now God's money. But Ananias will take a little bit for himself, without mentioning it to anyone. More directly, he's stealing from God. In so doing, he is testing the mercy of God — which we are commanded not to do. It is never a wise thing to assume that God won't care.

Of course, the real question here in your mind is not theft from God, nor sacrilege but why did Ananias and Sapphira have to drop dead? After all, is theft a capital crime? Well, it was in those days. But the issue is not theft, it is sacrilege. God expects his people to handle his things in his way. If you'd like a really good example of just how strict God is in that regard, you might want to remember the time during which David tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.[2]

Hypocrisy

If there is one sin that most of us at least pretend to despise, it is hypocrisy.

Is This Hypocrisy?

Of course, the first question is whether or not this really is hypocrisy. So perhaps we should take some time to define the word. Hypocrisy, put simply, is the pretense of being virtuous. The word itself comes from the concept of being an actor; it simply means that someone is faking it. The concept has been made less than clear by the fact that, often enough, hypocrisy is in allegation used in arguing with someone who disagrees with you.

Let's be clear: hypocrisy is not the same thing as moral failure. If you say that lying is a sin, and we know that you're a liar, that is NOT hypocrisy. Nor is it an argument that proves that lying is not a sin. If you tell us that you never lie, and condemn lying as a sin (but still do it), that is hypocrisy. The fact that you're a hypocrite is not an argument which says that lying is not a sin. All it really tells us is that you're a hypocrite. Hypocrisy requires the pretense of virtue. The fact that someone was a hypocrite is actually an argument telling us that when he's pretending to be is really a virtue.[3]

Now you understand why Ananias and Sapphira are hypocrites. It's not just that they're lying about the amount of money; it's that they are pretending that they virtuously gave all of it God. There's the pretense of virtue; there's the hypocrisy.

How Could a Loving God

Think about it this way: of all the sinners Christ ever encountered in his ministry on earth, with whom did he get mad? He had his choice of thieves, political zealots, adulterers, prostitutes and any of the other assorted sinners. He was kind and gentle with all except those who were hypocrites or committed sacrilege in the Temple. Christ never cleared out a house of prostitution. He drove the moneychangers from the Temple. The problem is simply this: if God is a loving God, then like all lovers he is jealous for his beloved. C. S. Lewis put 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.

That's how God feels about his church. He loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross. Do you think that afterwards he would lose interest in the well-being of his Son's own body?

Implications

So why is God so furious about hypocrisy? Because he loves us, that's why. Because he loves us he wants us to repent. Because we are hypocrites, we won't repent. Therefore God must take drastic action to break our hypocrisy; otherwise it becomes the unforgivable sin. You think not? Look at it this way: repentance is a process. It starts with the recognition that you are a sinner. If you will not make that recognition, you have no reason to go on to confess your sins and then repent. If you will not confess and repent, you will not be forgiven. If you can't complete the process, you cannot be forgiven. Remember: God wants that none of us will perish, but that all will be forgiven and receive eternal life.

Therefore, God cleans house. As Christ drove the money changers from the Temple, so the hypocrite risks being driven from the church. If he cleans house now, how much more will he clean house when he returns? It is well that we remember the parable of the wheat and tares.[4] We might also do well to remember that sometimes he's not to patient with hypocrites.

Leadership

We may now examine the results of this episode and Peter's leadership in it.

Results for the Church

As you can well imagine, this episode had quite a big effect on the church — and on the rest of the people of Jerusalem as well.

·         It caused a great deal of fear within the church, and outside. We are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; perhaps this is just an outstanding example of that.

·         We also see that the dividing line between the church and the world becomes much sharper. Those who might be tempted to go to church just for the experience of it now realize that it's quite a serious thing. They held the church in high esteem, but didn't want make the commitment.[5]

·         Most important, we see the power of the church. Christ told his apostles that they would do greater things than he did. There is no record of anyone being healed by having Christ's shadow fall on them — unlike Peter.

What Peter DIDN'T Do

There is an enormous sense of confidence in what Peter is doing. We may examine a few things that Peter did not do as examples for Christian leadership.

·         We might ask: just exactly how did Peter know that Ananias and Sapphira were lying? There was no investigation; no committee of elders to examine the problem. There was no formal sense of church discipline being applied. We make conclude from this that Peter got his information from the Holy Spirit. We may conclude from that Peter was directly in touch with the Holy Spirit. What we may conclude about the modern church remains to be seen.

·         Even more puzzling: why didn't Peter send someone to tell Sapphira that her husband had just dropped dead? It would seem to be elementary courtesy to let her know; she might even want to be invited to the funeral. Peter didn't do that. It's obvious that he knew that she was equally guilty; she was also to share the same fate. This is a hard, cold thing to do. That means that Peter was capable of doing hard, cold things. Sometimes, that's what you have to do.

·         One thing is certain: no compromise. The idea that you would fail to uphold righteousness just so that your attendance might increase seems to have no place in Peter's thinking. Perhaps the modern church should examine its own position on this and see if she can say the same.

What Peter Did Do

May I point out, as a first thing, just how Peter stated the case?

·         He tells both of them that they have been moved and controlled by Satan. In the modern church it's tough to get the word Satan even mentioned; the thought that he would be a motive or a controlling spirit is nowhere to be found. Peter recognized the existence, power and evil of Satan.

·         He tells them both that they are lying to God. This would be shocking behavior today; I'm not sure we would be able to form such a charge. But I point out two things: first, they were lying. It's a sin. Second, they were lying to the one person who would know, absolutely, that's just what they were doing. At the very least, this was not smart. But see how Peter puts the charge to them directly.

·         He points out to them that the money was there is once they sold the property. It wasn't dedicated to God just because they sold it; they could quite honestly have given a part of it and kept the rest.

Behind this, we may see one point: the church is to be kept separate; sacred. We are to be "in the world, not of the world." The results of that separation are seen here. You will notice that Peter and the other apostles continued to speak "boldly". When the church is really the church, sacred to God and separate from the world, then she can speak with holy boldness. When the church tries to become part of the world, the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense must be discarded.


[1] Leviticus 25:23

[2] 2nd Samuel 6:6-7

[3] Those familiar with formal logic will recognize the argument of "to quoque" (Latin for "you too.")

[4] Matthew 13:24-30

[5] This point seems almost impossible today in our church. People seem to ooze into the church; baptism is called "the next step on your spiritual journey." Confession and repentance seem extraneous now.

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