Don't cheat him - Acts 5:1-11

This is a sermon by Matthew Brailsford from the evening service on 21st May 2000.

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I wonder what has shocked you most in the last few days?

Perhaps it was the scenes of violence on the Sts of Copenhagen before Wednesday's UEFA cup Final between Arsenal & Galataseray.

Perhaps like me you were taken aback by the announcement this morning that the major world powers are going to scrap their nuclear weapons!

Maybe for you there has been a more personal shock like news of someone you know becoming ill or having an accident.

I wonder if anyone would include in our list of shocks our Bible reading from Acts of the Apostles that I read a few minutes ago? Do turn to it, p 1096.

This is in many ways one of the most disturbing passages in the NT.

2 members of this wonderful new community of God's people the Church, sin, & both are struck dead apparently by the direct action of God as a judgement on their sin.

V5 "When Ananias heard this, he fell down & died", v7 "About 3 hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened". Peter asks her for her side of the story & she denies any wrongdoing & Peter tells her the same fate that has befallen her husband will also be hers. v10 "At that moment she (Sapphira) fell down at his (Peter's) feet & died".

This is undeniably & uncomfortably a serious & shocking incident. Indeed the effect at the time was according to v11 "Great fear seized the whole church & all who heard about these events".

I take it that most of us find this shocking. It is a difficult incident for us to deal with coming as we do mostly from our western liberal culture. But I suspect it was uncomfortable for Luke the author of Acts to include it too, it would have been a temptation to have missed out it out & just focused on the tremendous growth of the church the fact Luke did record it, underlines his integrity & the reliability of the account we have.

The presence of this passage also means that if we are to maintain our integrity & our confidence that all scripture is God breathed & useful for teaching & correcting then we must seek to accept what we read & hear God's message to us through it.

You'll see from the sermon outline sheet that we learn that God can't tolerate sin, Hypocrisy is particularly serious, sin needs addressing in the Church.

1)God can't tolerate sin

The early chapters of the remarkable book of Acts records those united by faith in Jesus & indwelt by God's Spirit starting to meet together in a close supportive community. They meet to learn from the Apostle's teaching & to encourage each other. We find a church marked by Sprit inspired love for one another & bold proclamation of Jesus.

In many ways things seemed wonderful, even idyllic.

But in fact not all was perfect, heaven had not yet come to earth. No sooner had the church of Jesus begun then problems arose.

Let me remind us what happened. The great love these early Christians had for each other was demonstrated in clear, practical ways. Just before our passage, we reed v34 "There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money to the Apostles feet & it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

A particular eg. is then given, v36 "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the Apostles called Barnabas (which means son of encouragement) sold a field he owned & brought the money to the Apostles feet."

But just as Barnabas is a positive picture of the church, the negative comes with Ananias & Sapphira. As we've seen the 2 sin seriously & God brings swift & clear judgment on them they fall down dead!

Why did God perform this unusual action?

It is a reminder that sin is a serious offence against God, an offence that deserves his judgement. This is a truth seen throughout the Bible: OT & NT. Indeed it is foundational to the way the Bible explains the death of Jesus.

As the same Apostle Peter puts it in his 1st letter some years later 2:24 "Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might die to sins & live for righteousness". Jesus took within himself, in our place, instead of us, God's judgement on our sins, so that forgiven; we might live God's right way instead of living our own rebellious way.

Sin is serious, so serious it cost the death of God's son. The judgement of Ananias & Sapphira is a reminder at the outset of the church's life that as believers we are to seek to avoid sin. We are forgiven wonderfully in Jesus, but we are not forgiven to be free to sin, but to be free to "die to sin & live for righteousness".

So why not more of this kind of judgement?

Given that sin is serious & God is just, it would actually not be unreasonable for God to bring this kind of judgement more often.

But there isn't anything else quite like this in the NT, we're not told to expect it regularly & Church history suggests that in experience God hasn't often acted like this.

There is I believe an important lesson about the period of history we live in. We are, as was the early church, in the "times between the times": the time between the birth of Jesus & his return.

In Jesus' 1st coming he inaugurated God's Kingdom. There was in his life remarkable evidences of God's loving, saving rule breaking into his world. But that rule is not yet complete until Jesus returns to earth. When he does, he will return as judge. All that is wrong will be judged as wrong & all that is good will be seen as good. He will restore all things & all that is against God will be eliminated.

In the life of Jesus & in the early days of the church in the ministry of the Apostles, we see something of the in-breaking of God's kingdom in ways that are more usually to be fulfilled when Jesus returns & his rule is complete.

That's why we see the unusual number of healings. They point to the healing of all at the end of time as we know it. Similarly with judgment God will fully judge the whole world through his Son when Jesus returns, but unusually we see something of his judgment in advance, with Ananias & Sapphira.

As Peter tells the god fearing Roman soldier Cornelius a little later on [Acts10:42]. "Jesus commanded us to preach to the people & to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living & the dead" & as he told the crowd in Jerusalem in ch 3 who'd just seen the crippled beggar healed 3:21 "Jesus must remain in heaven until the time comes for him to restore everything.."

Full restoration & Judgement are to come in the future, yet at this key time in history God's judgement breaks in, in this awesome way.

This is a reminder to us now who read these words that God is no sugar daddy.

God reveals his great kindness to us in Jesus, we are to call him father, we are given the privilege of intimacy with him he is our "abba", our close & loving dad. We are assured that our sin is removed, our judgement has been taken by Jesus, we can know God & have a relationship with him. We can come into his presence with boldness in prayer, we can ask him confidently for his help.

Yet this is a privilege that should not be trivialized or abused. Sin is serious & God is pure. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living GodGod is a consuming fire". (10:31,12;29).

2)Hypocrisy is particularly serious

If you weren't asking those questions about the background to our passage & you've dozed off in the last minutes wake up! Because we need to get to the nitty gritty of what God is saying to us this evening.

What was the sin that provoked this somber reminder of the seriousness of sin that will one day bring judgment to all who aren't trusting Jesus when he returns?

On the surface of it Ananias & Sapphira behaved in the same generous way as Barnabas had. They sold a piece of their land & gave the money to the Apostles for the Church welfare fund. But, v2 "With his wife's full knowledge Ananias kept back part of the money for himself."

Now in some ways it seems that, in itself, this wasn't wrong. Peter makes it clear in v4 that their property was their own before & after the sale.

"Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?"

They were under no obligation to give all the money that had realized, they were free to keep some if they wished a reminder that the generous sharing of resources the church exhibited was voluntary, it was not a condition of belonging or of discipleship.

No, Ananias & Sapphira's sin was not in only giving part of the proceeds to the common fund, but in alleging they had given it all.

In other words their sin was hypocrisy. It was pretending they had done something, when in fact they hadn't.

This couple wanted the credit & the kudos for sacrificial generosity without the real cost of it. Perhaps they wanted to be held in the same esteem as the loved & generous encourager Barnabas, but they balked at the sacrifice it would involve. So they devised this cunning, deceiving scheme.

Ananias & Sapphira wanted to have their cake & it to have the benefits of the reputation for generosity whilst at the same time enjoying the benefits of the money others thought they had given away! Perhaps they thought they could fool the church & the Apostles & even pull the wool over God's eyes, but they were very wrong.

If we're honest the application to us is not far away.

It's very easy for us to make out we're better than we really are, to seek to gain a reputation for godliness falsely, even to attempt to gain credit for greater acts of service or devotion than we are really responsible for.

There's a real challenge here about what we say in public compared to what do in private. I think of the title of a book I have which is called "Who you are when no ones looking". Certainly speaking as a preacher, this is near the knuckle.

We all need to be careful how we talk of our money, family, our time & what we do with them.

Do we really mean everything we pray about in public? Do we claim more for our personal prayer lives & Bible reading than is true?

Hypocrisy is clearly wrong & was a particular target of Jesus sin his teaching but;

Why is hypocrisy so serious?

Serious because this was sin against God's church. Interesting that v11 is 1st use of the term "Church" in Acts.

Hypocrisy is a great evil amongst God's people because "Falsehood ruins fellowship" (Stott). If this hypocrisy had not been exposed publicly & punished the basis of their relationships as a church family would have been undermined.

Serious because it wasn't just the human church leaders who were lied to in this pretence, but God. Peter tells Ananias he has "Lied to the Holy Spirit" v3 & that, v4, he had "lied to God".

When Sapphira arrives Peter challenges her, v9 "How could you agree to test (or tempt) the Spirit of the Lord?" In other words how could you so try God to see what you could get away with? Hypocrisy is ultimately pretending to the all knowing all seeing God himself.

Serious because it is seen here as in some way the devils activity. Peter asks Ananias inV3 "how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy SpiritIn some way there was a giving in to a desire from the devil. Peter tells Ananias, literally, "Satan has made you dare" to do this.

Ananias remains responsible for his sin, but God's enemy is involved. Satan has a strategy that we see here in Acts. It is a strategy to counter attack when God is at work. He'll attack from outside like the physical violent opposition in the 2nd half of ch 5 or he'll try to inspire moral corruption to spoil the inner life of the church & thus ruin the fellowship & the Churches effectiveness in evangelism.

Perhaps hypocrisy is so serious for another reason that's not explicit in this passage. Hypocrisy is something that is opposite to the gospel of grace. The gospel is all about the generous love of God for sinners. And its benefits are enjoyed by those who honestly know & admit they are sinners.

Hypocrisy is about pretending we're better than we are. Hypocrisy is so serious because it denies grace. It implies we need to pretend to others & to God to gain acceptance. Grace says we don't need to pretend to God (he knows the worst about us already & he accepts us on the basis of Jesus) our acceptance is not dependant on our reputation or performance but on Christ & his death on our behalf.

Hypocrisy brings the community of the gospel into disrepute because it says God's grace in Jesus is not enough.

Hypocrisy then is particularly serious.

3)Sin needs addressing in the Church.

The early days of the church were remarkable yet with sin, still a part of the human condition this side of Jesus' return, it was perhaps inevitable that a few rotten apples should get into the pile.

The situation was very serious. The very future of the Church was at stake with the way they dealt with corrupt members. Granted God acted here remarkably, but it must have raised the general issue for them, as it does for us in the church today, as to whether there will be accountability & the enforcement of certain standards or whether we will allow the Church community to degenerate into something that is no different from the rest of the world?

This incident is very similar to one in the OT. In the book of Joshua. The Israelite Achan stole some treasure that was supposed to be given to God. As a result the whole Israelite community kept losing in their battles until his deception was discovered & he & his family were disciplined for the crime.

The word for "Kept back" in v3 is the same as that used for what Achan did with the trinkets from Jericho in Joshua 7.

The point is, the people of God are to be a disciplined community. To be faithful to God & to be used by God in his purposes, they must be different from the world & sanctions are needed for public sins to deter others from letting the side down.

The story of Ananias & Sapphira is a reminder that God has not changed. He expects discipline amongst his people. In this unusual incident God sets up a marker at the start of the church's life to make us see that his church should be holy. There is a need for rotten apples to be dealt with so that as in v11 there is healthy reverent fear for the God we belong to.

It is true that there have been occasions in history where Churches have wrongfully disciplined members for trivial things, but surely we live in an age where the other extreme is normal public sin is generally glossed over & that damages our witness, our fellowship & our effectiveness for God.

Jesus gives us the pattern for discipline in Matt18: 15. Public sin should first be addressed personally, if there is no repentance 2 or 3 others should bring the challenge again, & if there is still no recognition & turning from the sin, a public warning should be given & if the person still refuses to listen discipline should be exercised by withdrawing the privileges of belonging to the Church of Jesus eg a person should not be allowed to take Communion or belong to a fellowship group. This kind of discipline is necessary for both the Church's integrity & also the unrepentant member to lovingly help them see that their behaviour is serious.

Conc;

The story of Ananias & Sapphira is a shocking passage. It presents a clear challenge to all of us.

If we call Jesus Lord we must see that sin is serious to God & hypocrisy is particularly serious. I suspect it is a sin we all see at least in embryo in our own hearts & which we all need to seek forgiveness for it & strength to turn from it.

As we close another thing needs to be said. Perhaps you are one of those Christians with an over sensitive conscience. You tend to accuse yourself of hypocrisy unnecessarily, you are only too well aware of your failures & sins. You often think as you join others at Church "I shouldn't be here, I have no right to be, I am a hypocrite".

Don't let the devil falsely accuse you.

You would be guilty of hypocrisy if you were deliberately pretending to be something you were not. It's not that everyone who comes to Church is to be perfect - the church is a hospital for sinners not a shop window for ready-made saints! We all have many things in our lives which make us ashamed but that does not make us hypocrites whom God is going to strike dead. The awful thing about Ananias & Sapphira is that they were trying to deceive people into thinking they had done something good that they hadn't.

You see, God will not have his church cluttered up with people pretending to be what they are not. It's one thing to have faults which we all have, but it's quite another to have faults & pretend we haven't. It's that kind of unrepentant attempt to dupe others that the church must discipline.

Sin that is acknowledged, confessed & turned from will always be forgiven by God because of Jesus' death for our sins & it should be by other Christians. But we are warned here that we must never try to lie to God's Spirit, for even if other people don't see our hypocrisy, & discipline us, God will.

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