Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
We cannot call what happens in Acts five the church’s first problem. Having your members hauled before community leaders and threatened would be stressful and concerning. Having members in financial need would be considered a tough issue. But, neither of those things were “unforced errors.” In an organization filled with people, there will be internal problems because we have struggles and sins. What we do about them and after them spells the difference in ultimate success and failure.
THE REBELLION (1-10). We are introduced to a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, members of the Jerusalem congregation. In the spirit of sacrificial generosity, Barnabas, who owned a tract of land, “sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:37). This couple also sold a piece of property, an admirable and generous thing to do to prevent needs among the Christians (4:34). But, what they did after the sell was anything but righteous. They kept back part of the proceeds from the sale. What was the sin in that? Apparent there was an intent to deceive, to suggest that they were giving all the money while keeping part of it for themselves. The word translated “keep back” is the word for pilfer or embezzle, suggesting they had pledged the full price of the sale but kept back some for their own security. This would also suggest covetousness or greed, hearts influenced by worldliness. It also certainly implies pride, wanting to be seen as generous as Barnabas while not suffering the full sacrifice of surrendering all the money for the needs of the saints. This husband and wife were united, but in the worst possible way. Do we struggle with materialism, pride, greed, dishonesty, and selfishness? It is good for us to appreciate how seriously God takes the willful sin in the lives of His children (Heb. 10:26ff). God preserved this in Scripture for us to contemplate how harmful “sin in the camp” is to the spiritual health and well-being of His sacred community (the church).
THE RESPONSE (3-10). Peter calls out Ananias (3-4), then Sapphira (8-9) three hours later. He specifies what they had done and why it was so wrong. God’s response was to strike each of them dead! Looking back on this, especially if we struggle to see the “big deal” of their sin, we might think the reaction was overly harsh or unreasonable. No doubt this event gets our attention and sharpens our focus on how seriously God views premeditated sin and sin that threatens to harm the entire spiritual community. Conceiving transgression in the heart and attempting to lie to God is such a basic betrayal of our Lord. While we should be grateful that God does not choose to respond with such immediacy today, we should also reflect deeply upon how grave it is to engage in unrighteousness. It’s not “no big deal,” something to be rationalized away. Even if church leadership does not address it in this life does not mean God will not address it at the judgment. This text encourages us to keep our heart soft to His will and to the reality of our willfulness.
THE RESULT (11-16). We might think that people would have left that church in droves! After all, if they had a marquee in front of their “building,” it might say, “Come inside and try us. The Holy Spirit strikes down our liars.” Yet, what happens next? As we might suspect, “great fear came upon them all” (11). But, the judgment on the couple did not drive people away or even send the cause in a backward direction. The apostles demonstrate God’s power (12), the church spent more time together (12), the broader community held them in high esteem (13) and benefited from their benevolence (15-16), and, maybe most startling, “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (14). How could this be the result of the ultimate example of “church discipline”? Simply, this is God’s wisdom. Paul will later say, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). Just because we don’t understand God’s ways does not make them inappropriate and improper (Isa. 55:8-9). The Potter has a right over the clay (Rom. 9:20-21). We must resist the temptation to protest the teaching and conclusions God’s Word makes because we find it too hard and narrow. If we trust God’s wisdom and pattern, we’ll find it works in any culture, time, and place.