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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. We might also
do well to remember that sometimes he's not to patient with hypocrites.
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.
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
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
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.