The early church was not only busy, it was persecuted. We continue our study with chapter five. We recall the story of Ananias and Sapphira but often make the mistake of thinking of them apart from the very Scripture content that gives the incident its context. So we actually want to begin at Acts 4:32-37:
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.
Some have been disturbed because they understood this passage to suggest the early church practiced communism. But let's not get too excited. Keep on reading. Acts 5:1-4:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."
We'll consider more about Ananias and Sapphira in a moment, but first, notice verse four. Peter quite supports the idea of private property. "While it remained was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?"
Peter is reminding Ananias that his own property was his own property. Ananias could pledge it to God as a free will offering or not. But Ananias and Sapphira after making a pledge backtracked and decided to keep a significant portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property to themselves. That was fine, but when they lied to the church about the amount of their sale and their donation, when they represented themselves as making a larger sacrifice than they actually were, that was lying to God.
The church is not God but it belongs to God. Lying to the church is a contradiction to faith. God sees and knows all. When you lie to the church, you might think you are lying to the humans God chooses to lead it, but you are actually lying to God Himself.
What Motivates Me?
God gives us material gain so that we can sort ourselves out. We need to know what we value. There are various currencies in play. Satan is also a deep student of all this. His theory is that every person can be bought and sold, every person is ready to barter certain things he has for certain things he wants to have.
There are different kinds of currency. Some trade in monetary wealth. You get enough shekels and you can exchange it for that automobile you want, or that expensive house or premium clothing. For others, sensation is the ultimate thing, adventure, the looking for the ultimate momentary feeling of high, or sexual excess. Normally, sexual excess might be more about a desperate search for missing intimacy. For other people, it is about power, meaning over others. And so Satan is interested, because, as he uttered in contest with God, "all that a man has he will give for his life" (Job 2:4).
Jesus was very alert to this question, which is why He said you cannot serve both God and mammon (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). And, why He asked, "What will a man give in exchange for his soul?" In Revelation God delivers a people who cannot be bought or sold, and Satan reaps his harvest of all those who can be bought and sold. So these are live questions for us.
It is strange how we all remember the names Ananias and Sapphira, but we don't recall the example they had before them in Scripture.
Ananias and Sapphira are presented in contrast to someone else. Read at Acts 4:34-37:
Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.
This is the very important background for the situation. Hear these two paragraphs from Ellen White's Acts of the Apostles, pp. 71-72:
In sharp contrast to the example of benevolence shown by the believers, was the conduct of Ananias and Sapphira, whose experience traced by the pen of inspiration, has left a dark stain upon the history of the early church. With others, these professed disciples had shared the privilege of hearing the gospel preached by the apostles. They had been present with other believers when, after the apostles had prayed, 'the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.' Acts 4:31. Deep conviction had rested upon all present, and under the direct influence of the Spirit of God, Ananias and Sapphira had made a pledge to give to the Lord the proceeds from the sale of certain property.
Afterward, Ananias and Sapphira grieved the Holy Spirit by yielding to feelings of covetousness. They began to regret their promise and soon lost the sweet influence of the blessing that had warmed their hearts with a desire to do large things in behalf of the cause of Christ. They thought they had been too hasty, that they ought to reconsider their decision. They talked the matter over, and decided not to fulfill their pledge. They saw, however, that those who parted with their possessions to supply the needs of their poorer brethren, were held in high esteem among the believers; and ashamed to have their brethren know that their selfish souls grudged that which they had solemnly dedicated to God, they deliberately decided to sell their property and pretend to give all the proceeds into the general fund, but really to keep a large share for themselves. Thus they would secure their living from the common store and at the same time gain the high esteem of their brethren.
Here we see the real gravity of the question about what motivates us, how, God forbid, could you or I be bought and sold?
From the beginning the Bible supports the concept of private property. The Ten Commandments warns us not to steal, which means not to take from someone something that does not belong to you. What you find in this passage is that the early church members were very close to one another. Because of bitter persecution, many early believers found themselves shunned and pushed aside by their fellow Hebrews. Some members upon whose hearts the Holy Spirit moved sold their lands and other possessions and gave the proceeds to the church to help these new converts.
The members of the church did not give up all their private property. The men knew they were responsible to provide for their families, and this they were careful to do. But the early Christian church was closely united in mission; they were all in. It showed in their behavior toward each other and toward God. Enormous unity was manifest in the church. It was in this setting God was able to add hundreds and then thousands of members in a very short period.
Hypocrisy and the Progress of the Church
We all have heard arguments against joining a church congregation. One set of arguments centers around the issue of hypocrisy. People say they don't want to become a member either because they don't like to spend time with hypocrites, or, they say because they don't want to be a hypocrite. We should process these arguments a bit, because we will hear them, and we want to be able to give an answer God can use to change someone's thinking.
What is a hypocrite? A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and then does something incompatible with what they say. Again, a hypocrite is someone who knows the right thing to do but chooses to act in a way that does not harmonize with the right thing. In some respect, the actions of the person are not consistent with his stated values.
Hypocrisy is a reality for the unconverted person. The Bible says that God has placed eternity in every persons heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This does not mean every person is immortal but that God in some measure makes it possible for every person to understand enough about what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral, to make an informed decision about the values he chooses to embrace.
Not only does the Holy Spirit inform every man, whether he wants to be informed or not, but also, every person is given a conscience by God. And so Romans 1:18-21 says,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and godhead, so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
People know there is a God. They know He is good. But they choose to reject His goodness and act contrary to what is right. Then they attempt to put the infinite God out of their minds. And what can God do? They are suppressing the truth. They are suppressing the very reality of which they are a part.
God does not wish to force Himself upon them, but He wants them to abandon the madness of self-centeredness and receive His gift of correction and healing and become all they can become. But if they choose to put Him out of their minds, to suppress what is right over and over and over, He will not force them to acknowledge reality or acknowledge His goodness. With a heart of tears He lets them harden themselves. He appeals to them with all the intelligence of divine wisdom but their very rejection hardens their own hearts until it is as if they have made their consciences deaf to His glorious sound.
Then they have placed themselves wholly outside of His protection and the destroyer Satan comes and takes them captive and uses them up and destroys them.
Where am I going with this? Because Romans one is true, we know that every person who chooses not to be on God's side is a hypocrite. Every such person is choosing to act in contradiction to the facts which God has shown him. Then is it not true that every person who fights against the truth of God is himself a hypocrite?
With the passage of time, we can cause our own minds to be darkened. We can forget the truth we once knew about God. Thus a person can forget there is a God. Unless he responds to God's increasingly distant voice, he will inevitably become entirely aligned with the ultimate hypocrite of all, Satan.
Satan knows too well there is a God and heaven. He has been there. He has been cast out from there. He knows what is right and what is wrong and he has consciously aligned to wrong. He still knows. Philippians 2:10-11 shows us in the end, though for but a brief moment, even he will bow and acknowledge Jesus is Lord and God is right. But then he will return to his habitual rebellion and denial and God will finally destroy him utterly.
Satan is the ultimate hypocrite. Because all men eventually choose to sin, choose to act against reality, act in what at the time they feel to be their self-interest, to enter into active rebellion against God, all men place themselves into the hypocrite category. You have been a hypocrite. I have been a hypocrite.
But then comes the gospel.
You see, the only way out of hypocrisy, is God. In His strength we can repent, cleave to Him, receive forgiveness, rise above habitual self-service, and turn from dissonance between what we know is right and what we know is wrong, and choose to align with what is right.
Are there hypocrites in the church? There certainly is a crowd of former hypocrites at least. That ratio is 100%. All of us have been hypocrites. How many are hypocrites today?
We are not here to claim perfection, but one place where God especially works is in His church. The church is the theater of His grace. It is one of those very unusual places on planet earth where you can find not only hypocrites, but some former hypocrites. For it is in the halls of the church that we gather together to worship Him, to agree with His morality, His law, His character, His mercy, and His lovingkindness. In these halls He teaches us and we encourage each other, to lay hold of His strength and make peace with Him. Do you recall that promise?
It is Isaiah 27:5:
Let him take hold of My strength, that he may make peace with Me, and he shall make peace with Me.
That is not spoken between God and an individual, but God and His people Israel. God is appealing through His prophet to His people to repent, return and be forgiven, accept Him as God, and embrace His ways.
He is still making this appeal. He makes it to you as a person, but the appeal for you to come to Him in His way. He wants you to become one of His own. He wants you to join Israel as it were. For it is only to Israel that this promise is made. One joining with Him is agreeing to embrace His vision of right and wrong, and it is to His church that He has given this great privilege. God did not design this world for one person but for a civilization of moral beings designed and thriving in His image.
Are there defects in the church? Certainly. Hypocrites? Certainly. But there are less hypocrites per square inch in the church than there is anywhere else on planet earth. In His church we acknowledge Him as Lord and we repent and turn from our wicked ways and receive His strength for living right. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Many times we return to bow down at the foot of the cross and ask His forgiveness. But He longs to do this and to restore us to Himself. God isn't waiting for you at the cross with a flamethrower, but Jesus there holds out His nail-scarred hands to you. Will you come?
But there is another argument. Namely, that there must be some virtue in admitting you are doing wrong but that you at least are doing wrong openly, making no claims that you are not what you actually are. Is it true? Does God approve of the open sinner more than He approves of the hypocrite?
Perhaps we can think about this using simple mathematics. Say that a lost person has zero salvation points, and a saved person has one salvation point. So, everyone is either saved or lost, everyone has either a 1 or a zero. Now, how is it a person is saved? They are never saved on the basis of what they themselves do or have done. The saved person is saved because he receives Jesus as His personal Savior. That's where he gets his one point.
The hypocrite is sinning openly. He has a zero.
The Christian is a reforming hypocrite. He had been wrong but God sought Him and he turned to God. He repented. He has no good deeds of His own by which he can approach God. So he has exactly zero. But Jesus offers to die in His place, to give His life in exchange for the sinner's life. And drawing close to Jesus changes us, too. Accepting God's strength helps Israel learn how to be right. So in the end, he is saved, not on the basis of His own right doing but Jesus' right doing. So he himself has a zero, but accepts Jesus' gift of one.
So we are all bankrupt before God. None of us can bring Him any good thing to save ourselves. But Jesus offers you His life and to put His death in place of your death. In return, not only do you receive forgiveness of sin, but repentance, turning and divine strength to make peace with Him.
This is the only pathway this universe knows out of hypocrisy. If you are opposed to hypocrisy, this is the single path not only to knowing there is a God and that His ways are right, but to enter into acceptance with Him and discovery of the supernatural life He is ready to give you at His side--His non-hypocritical side.
Ananias and Sapphira Outed by God
Now let's come back to Ananias and Sapphira. They followed through on their plan. They sold the property, and then pretended to have made a greater sacrifice while holding back moneys they had promised to dedicate to God's work. They walked in, Ananias first and a few hours later, Sapphira, and lied to the apostles, like God was asleep and His church was merely staffed by oblivious men.
But the church was staffed with men of God, workers in communion with Him. When they lied to God's human leaders, when they executed their plan to soak in the trust and special affection of the church members while in fact they were turning back from God, Heaven intervened. God took their lives from them at that spot, and each in their turn died there and were carried out to burial.
Consider this, again from Acts of the Apostles:
Infinite Wisdom saw that this signal manifestation of the wrath of God was necessary to guard the young church from becoming demoralized. Their numbers were rapidly increasing. The church would have been endangered if, in the rapid increase of converts, men and women had been added who, while professing to serve God, were worshipping mammon. This judgment testified that men cannot deceive God, that He detects the hidden sin of the heart, and that He will not be mocked. It was designed as a warning to the church, to lead them to avoid pretense and hypocrisy, and to beware of robbing God (Acts of the Apostles 73).
The church was still young, still small. New converts to Jesus were pouring in. Ananias and Sapphira believed for awhile. But their motivations weren't right. They weren't all in for their Lord. They reverted, they didn't let the Holy Spirit go deep. They trusted in their own plans. And they presented a warning to the early church, and to us. For our hearts are susceptible as theirs, to covetousness. Listen to one more quote:
When divine light is shining into the heart with unusual clearness and power, habitual selfishness relaxes its grasp and there is a disposition to give to the cause of God. But none need think that they will be allowed to fulfill the promises then made, without a protest on the part of Satan (ibid, 74).
We need to respond to God while we can and then hold firmly to the commitments we make to be like Jesus. We have years of wrong thinking in our heads and hearts and Satan will have a battery of excuses for why we should rethink our plans to support God's work. And now, when the future looks uncertain we might be at risk of wobbling in our commitments to God and His church. But I want to urge myself and each of us to trust God. Put Him first in all things, and even now in this economic sinkhole that has been generated in the global economy, let us trust in Jesus and be faithful to Him. Don't lose heaven because of fear. God will provide for you just as He provided Jesus on the cross for you. Act on your faith today, and the Lord Jesus will bless you, and bless His church.
Muskegon and Fremont MI SDA churches via Internet Zoom 2020-04-11