Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Church Unmasked! Acts 5:1-11

The Church Unmasked!
Acts 5:1-11
Introduction: I never went to funerals growing up. I believe that the first funeral I attended was as an adult and I went with my father and brother to NYC. I worked at a garbage dump in those days, and I knew well the man who had died. He was the owner of a waste disposal company in NYC. He was like a cowboy or a pirate, loud and boisterous, and probably dangerous, but somehow likeable. But in those days the garbage industry in NJ and NY was reportedly influenced by organized crime, and he had offended someone he shouldn’t have. He was shot twice in the back of the head, executed. The suddenness of his death, at my workplace, just a few hundred yards from the apartment I lived in with a co-worker, was a shock. He was a tough guy, if he could be murdered, and as far as I know the killers were never caught, who was safe?  I’ve been to many funerals since then, and my perspective has certainly been different since I trusted in Christ. But sudden, unexpected death still stuns us.  It makes us think. When the circumstances are so shocking we may even wonder if we too are vulnerable. Where do we turn? The answer to that question really depends on our heart.  In today’s passage we see not one case of a sudden, unexpected death, but two. And since the offense was against God, God clearly brought the judgment. That should get your attention.
The Big Idea: God is holy, and He calls us to holiness. Though we always fall short we should strive to be like Him and always be honest with Him.
I. Masking our Motives: We may fool people, we don’t fool God!  “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” (1-2).
            “But…” The first word in chapter 5, “but,” ties this story in with the one in the preceding context. It is a case study in contrasts. At the end of Chapter 4 we see Barnabas, who acted with a genuine attitude of stewardship and with an eye toward eternity. He knew that what he had belonged to God, he was a steward, a manager, of what the real owner had entrusted to him.  So he saw a need and he joyfully met the need.  In today’s passage Ananias and Sapphira were focused exclusively on the here and now.  Barnabas was motivated by love for God and compassion on the needy, Ananias and Sapphira craved the praise of men. 
            Notice what the couple did, essentially acting without even considering the question of God’s omniscience and His holiness.  With his wife’s knowledge he keeps back a portion of the proceeds of the sale, and tried to give the impression that they are donating the full amount they had received. They operate at a completely human level, apparently wanting to give the impression that their generosity was like that of Barnabas. Maybe they would get a new name too! Barnabas was the “Son of Encouragement,” maybe they would be dubbed Mr and Mrs “Blessing to others” or something!  They were only telling a little “white lie” in the process, right?  The important thing was (or so they might have rationalized) that they were giving a substantial amount of money to meet the needs of others.  That is all that mattered, or was it?
            A couple of questions may come to mind as we approach this story:
1) What exactly was their sin?  
2) Doesn’t this “judgment” seem a little extreme?  
First let’s be clear that their sin was not that they didn’t give the full amount of the sale. We will see as the story unfolds Peter makes it clear that the land, and the proceeds from the sale, were all under their control to use as they chose.  Their sin was agreeing together to lie, to say that they were giving all, because they craved the approval of humans. As they planned this deception together, in effect that were acting as if they thought they could fool God, or acting as if God wouldn’t really care. God knows our hearts, and He cares. God certainly loves a cheerful giver.  But the motivation of this couple had become skewed, they apparently were desiring the praise of men.  God wants our hearts to be right with Him. God is holy, and He calls us to holiness. Though we always fall short we should strive to be like Him and always be honest with Him.

II. Exposing our Heart: Paul says elsewhere that “[God] will bring to light the things hidden in darkness, and expose the motives of men’s hearts” (I Cor 4:5). We come to the heart of this story in Acts 5:3-10,
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 men but to God."  5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it6 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” (3-10).
Be sure your sin will be exposed!
Notice Peter asks, “Why has Satan filled your heart… We do have an Enemy who would lead us into sin. He is the tempter who came to Eve in the Garden, and he is the deceiver who would whisper His lies into the head and heart of God’s people. We can’t use the Enemy for an excuse, “The Devil made me do it!” Eve tried that in the Garden and it didn’t fly. He can tempt us and lie to us, but we have a choice, a will, and we are responsible for our decisions and actions.
Notice also in 5:4, that the sin was not that they didn’t give all. It was theirs before it was sold. It was under their control afterward. It was theirs to do with as they thought best (v.4).  The problem was that the couple willfully and purposefully plotted together to deceive. Why? It would seem the approval and respect that givers like Barnabas were receiving was something they wanted. They craved the recognition, they wanted the apostles and others to see their generosity.  So they said that the amount of their donation was the full price they received for the sale of their land. We don’t know what percentage they gave, nor do we know what part they held back. The point is they were being deliberately deceptive.
The context clearly implies that God made the conspiracy known to the apostles and that God himself brought the chastening hand down hard on husband and wife.  Chastening? Not judgment?  I believe so, since we know that God chastens us because He loves us. God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness, but that day is still future.  We read, for example, in the letter to the Hebrews,
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.  9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness… (Heb 12:6-10).
We also have indications in the Bible that there are occasions where God will take home one of His children rather than allowing them to continue in sin. In the context of taking lightly the ordinance of the Lord’s supper, we read, That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (I Cor 11:30).  Even if our sin is hidden from men, God knows the truth! He knows our heart. Notice in Acts 5:3,4, the lie was to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is God. Since He can be lied to, He is clearly a person and not simply a force. Jesus had spoken of another “Comforter” He would send, clearly a person, God the Holy Spirit. The trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, three persons, one God, is assumed throughout the New Testament and implicit in the Old Testament as well.
This story in Acts brings to mind another case of severe judgment of a deception in the midst of a time of transition for the people of God, the story of Achan, when Joshua was leading the people in the early stages of the conquest of the Promised Land. You remember the story: the people were told by God not to take anything from the spoils of Jericho when God brought down the walls and gave them the city. Achan had kept back some of the devoted things from Jericho and hid them in his tent (Joshua 7).  As a result, he brought chastening first on the people (as they are defeated at Ai) and then on himself, as his sin is revealed and he is stoned for his disobedience.  It seems radical in its context. But God is holy. And He is sovereign. He called for complete obedience and, at the outset, as they were beginning to take the land that God had given them, the people needed to know how serious sin and disobedience are. Here in Acts, as God begins to work with the new covenant community, a wrong heart attitude about God and about His holiness again threatens to creep in. And so God steps in, and brings a new sense of reverence among the people and a deepened understanding of His omniscience, His holiness, and of the seriousness of sin.
·        We get a clue here as to how seriously God takes sin, how grievous it must be in His sight.  Both cases, Old Testament and New, showed the seriousness of sin, He is of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity, and He will be no means leave the guilty unpunished. And in both cases the sinner could not be allowed to continue in the midst of God’s people.
·        God does not usually immediately judge our sin and hypocrisy in such a dramatic way (thankfully!). But He does chasten his children. Because He loves us, and He loves His church. He calls us to pursue holiness, to grow to be more and more like Jesus.  God is holy, and He calls us to holiness. Though we always fall short we should strive to be like Him and, above all, always be honest with Him.

III. Reverence for the Holy One: Fear of God and the Pursuit of Holiness.  “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
            First of all, notice that Great fear came upon the whole church. The “fear of the Lord” is a theme that is developed throughout Scripture, but it is not a topic we hear about much today. God is love, right? Isn’t He my Father, my friend, my brother?  Yes, and our God is an awesome God, He reigns from Heaven above. He is Holy, and get this, He is omniscient. He knows the truth about us. The Old Testament contrasts the Way of Wisdom and the Way of the Fool.  Proverbs sums it up saying, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  Here in Acts we are told this event brought “great fear” on the whole church.  Sin grieves Him. When we choose to sin, it’s like we are shaking our fist at Him, resisting or rejecting His authority over us.   We are Adam in the garden all over again, choosing to disobey, choosing to listen to the serpent, choosing to follow Eve in disobedience rather than hearing God… God be merciful to me a sinner!  Though I believe the New Testament church was born on the day of Pentecost, this story in Chapter 5 is the first time in Acts that the word “church,” ekklesia, is used for the assembled believers in Jesus.  The word itself implies a “called out assembly.”  Perhaps Luke uses the term first here because in the context their “fear” or reverence for God is in response to His demonstrated hatred of sin and His call that we be a separated people, called out from the world.
            Fear extended beyond the church to “all who heard these things.”  Christianity was not a club, not a party, not merely a “fellowship.” It is God’s called out assembly, the church of the living God. He is the Holy One. We can approach Him only in Christ, covered by the blood of the Lamb.
            Some Old Testament stories illustrate His holiness. Remember for example the Old Testament story in 2 Samuel of the Ark being moved,
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart,  4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.  5 And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.  6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled.  7 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Sam 6:3-7).
The ark was holy and the command that God had given was unequivocal: no one should touch it. It was the place of the presence of God in the midst of his people. First, it was placed in the Holy Place of the tabernacle. Later when the Temple was build it would be in the Holy of Holies, behind the vale, seen only by the High Priest on the day of atonement.  Now get this: the New Testament points to us, the church, as God’s Temple in this age. He told the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are the Temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (I Cor 3:16; cf. 3:9).  We read also in Ephesians,
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:18-22).
The same God who sanctified the ark of the covenant as the place of His presence in the midst of the Temple, a place that was so holy it could only be approached by the one chosen by God and that on one day of the year, the awesome, pure, and holy creator of the universe, because of Jesus, abides in US. He is here. He is with us when we gather, He goes with us as we go out into the world.
What is God saying to me in this passage?  God is holy, and He calls us to holiness. Though we always fall short we should strive to be like Him and always be honest with Him.
What would God have me to do in response to this passage? Sudden death shocks us, it can even scare us, it can make us wonder if we too are vulnerable. It certainly shocked the community in this story in the book of Acts. If anyone was getting casual about their faith or about God, this surely got their attention!  There are a couple of responses this story calls for. It impacts our theology, how we think about God, and also our choices, if we would follow Him, how should we live?
1) Recognize how holy God is, and how grievous sin is in the face of God, and keep short accounts with Him.  We need to have human relationships where we can be transparent and held accountable, and we need even more absolute honesty in His presence.  Confession of sin is a characteristic of a believer: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).  Though confession might (and should!) make us uncomfortable, we might as well be honest with God, since He knows the truth anyway! 
2) Along these lines, the idea of church discipline also applies. In our culture, tolerance and inclusion are lauded. But if there are absolutes of right and wrong, and if God hates sin, what is the loving thing to do? According to Jesus, if a brother sins against us, or if we see a brother or sister going off the narrow way, we need to confront them, in love, with a view toward their restoration.  If that is really our attitude, most problems that could potentially spiral out of control can be handled. 

3) As we consider God’s holiness, how offensive sin is to Him and how certainly judgment will come to the unrepentant, we should be moved by the urgent need of those in our sphere of influence, in our area, and in the world, who desperately need to hear the truth and turn to Him. Have you made a list for this year of four or five people that are around you, who desperately need Jesus, and committed yourself to praying for them daily?  Look for opportunities to testify to the reality of God, the seriousness of sin, and the offer of salvation by grace through faith.