The Church’s First Internal Problem

The Church’s First Internal Problem

Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross

Neal Pollard

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. 

WHEN GOD CONQUERS A HEART

WHEN GOD CONQUERS A HEART

Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross

img_5670

Neal Pollard

The story of Rahab the harlot is one of the better-known stories of the entire Conquest Period. Perhaps it is because it occurs before but is connected with the most famous (and first) place to be conquered, Jericho, but it is also because of who the heroine of the story is. Three New Testament writers mention her, Matthew for her place in the Messianic genealogies (Mat. 1:5), the writer of Hebrews for her faith (Heb. 11:31), and James for her works (Jas. 2:25). But, there is no escaping who she was or how she made her living when Israelite spies paid her a visit. The Hebrew word, ZANA, means “to commit fornication, be a harlot, play the harlot, illicit heterosexual intercourse,” TWOT). They say, “Such persons received hire (Deut 23:19), had identifying marks (Gen 38:15; Prov 7:10; Jer 3:3), had their own houses (Jer 5:7), and were to be shunned (Prov 23:27)” (ibid.). She is not only a Canaanite, but she operated a sordid business.

But from the moment we hear from her in Scripture, we can see that there is much more to her than the aforementioned description. Despite the fact that she needed to do more growing (don’t we all?), she shows the difference God can make in even the most unlikely places. What do we find in Joshua two?

When God conquers a heart, one will be ruled by His authority (2-5). The Bible doesn’t sanction Rahab’s lie, but consider for a moment that she was ordered by the King of Jericho to surrender the two spies from Israel. She feels no allegiance to the earthly ruler, and she will explain that it is because of her faith in Jehovah (9). If God has conquered our hearts, won’t we say with Peter and John, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)?

When God conquers a heart, one will help His people (6-7,14-21). She saved the spies’ lives. She hid them and helped them escape. She recognized these men as God’s servants doing God’s business. She wanted to serve and protect them. Ultimately, she lets them down through her window and enables their escape (15, 20). Those whose hearts God possess are allies of the righteous (Mal. 3:18). 

When God conquers a heart, one has faith in God’s provision (8-13). Nothing in the text tells us that the spies preached to her, yet somehow she had arrived at the conviction that she could have hope of salvation. She says she knew God had given Israel the land (9), something these spies’ fathers most likely did not believe (cf. Num. 13-14). She saw how afraid her fellow-citizens were of God’s wrath and power, working through His people (9). She had faith based on the signs and works God had performed from the Red Sea to the Amorites (10). It led her to acknowledge God as “God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (11). Therefore, she asked, in exchange for protecting the spies, for the deliverance of her family and herself (12-13). She hadn’t seen the battle yet, but she believed that it belonged to the Lord. It takes genuine faith to draw a conclusion like that. We’ve not experienced death, the resurrection, the judgment, and an eternal destiny, but do we have faith that God will provide for us through them (cf. 1 Pet. 1:3-9)? If God possesses our hearts, we do!

When God conquers a heart, one will meet the conditions of salvation (14-21). The spies made the salvation of Rahab and her family conditioned upon three things: tie a scarlet thread in her window (18), gather all she wanted to be saved into her house (18), and not tell anyone these spies’ business (20). There was no picking and choosing what she preferred to follow. Obedience meant the difference in life and death (5:25). So today, a heart which God owns will not shun to do anything His Word commands. There’s no arguing, bargaining, debating, or rationalizing, but instead a faith that does what God wills. 

The spies’ mission was a great success and Joshua was encouraged (22-24). They were ready to do battle, ready to conquer. Back in Jericho, there was a woman born into a life of godlessness who had lived a life of worldliness who now faced the hope of happiness and righteousness. Great things follow when we allow God to conquer our hearts! 

Neal’s Note: I send out an email most mornings that I call “The Lehman Learner.” I walk through books of the Bible (in the past I’ve done the Psalms, Luke, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Kings, etc.). This article is from last week. If you would like to receive The Lehman Learner, write to this email and request it. You will be added to the mailing list.)