The Power of the Holy Spirit
Scripture: Acts 5:1–5:16
Ananias, Sapphira, and the Power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-16) – July 31, 2016
All of us despise conceited, tale telling people; don’t we? Have you ever been with someone who, though perhaps a great conversationalist, always gets around to talking about themselves? Sometimes the stories are so entertaining that you really don’t mind, but sometimes it just gets overwhelming and you just want to get away. In other cases, perhaps it’s more subtle, and you don’t realize it until after you’ve been with them for a while, or when you’ve been with them for a few times. Well, in a recent job I worked with such an individual, and he wasn’t always so subtle about it. In fact, one day we were sitting at Starbucks in the city before going in for a customer visit, and he told me about how he was making up fake people on LinkedIn and connecting with them, and then having those fake people give him glowing recommendations. He did all of that to try to impress his boss, and I suppose others as well.
It was a moment of transparency which I did NOT expect from this guy, who was actually often enjoyable to be with, but who suffered from what so many of us suffer from, but in his case perhaps to a greater degree. We all want to look good before other people, don’t we? In fact, think about this, many of you I have not met or spoken to personally, at least not yet, and even though I realize intellectually and in my heart that bringing the Word of God to the church is a privilege, yet in my flesh, I want you to be impressed with my delivery, and say after I’m done, how clever Rich was in what he said, when I should be totally focused on bringing glory to God, and thinking ONLY of that. I mean let’s be real for a moment. When we put up pictures on Facebook, don’t we often take a half dozen of the same shot to make sure we don’t look awkward or fat, or whatever, before we put it up?? And most of the postings we read or see about our friends and family are positive and rarely tell the real truth about how we may be doing or feeling. Of course, there is the opposite side where some people expose so much of their lives in a negative fashion, that that also becomes self-seeking, doesn’t it? And what about the news we get every day from the media? Don’t we have to take it with a “grain of salt” and think about how much of it is real or emphasized in such a manner that some agenda is being highlighted such that the truth is hard to discern. And that applies to both the liberal and the conservative news outlets. Our society is rife with deception and self-promotion posed as truth, isn’t it?
So you may ask, well, what does all of that have to do with the Scripture before us today? Well, let me read it and then make the connection. (READ Acts 5:1-16). It’s about deception and self-promotion, isn’t it? And it certainly was more serious than a lot of the deception and self-promotion we talked about, wasn’t it? I mean, two people died because of this deception. And, perhaps it may seem to us to be a little harsh. It’s not an easy Scripture passage to digest, being sandwiched between all of these positive affirmations of the Holy Spirit’s work in the early church. In fact, this particular event in the New Testament has caused a lot of controversy, both to its veracity (to which we would resoundingly say YES, it is an event that actually happened), and then to the actual details of how it happened, like well, did they actually die right away, or just after their confrontation, and was it from natural causes??
A funny story about my assignment here today, Pastors Eric and Daniel put out a list of possible weeks for guest speakers to take to preach for this summer, and I was the first one to respond, taking this passage. Then someone else, expressed interest just after me to take that same passage. And THEY thought that no one would want this assignment and would be the one last taken, I am assuming because of the nature of the narrative! Well, as we all know, this event is part and parcel of the totality of God’s revelation in the Scriptures. And as such, it should have a profound impact on us as we consider the truths revealed in it.
Now, consider this, we are all encouraged to bring our tithes and gifts before the Lord, to provide for the Kingdom work here and for the missions that we support. And what if a respected couple in the church, you pick the names, brought their gift and made some pronouncement about, for example, simplifying their lives, and bringing ALL of the proceeds of their home sale to this offering. Perhaps, it is a large sum, and people figure that, like Ananias and Sapphira’s trying to look like Barnabas gift (from Acts 4), it is the whole thing. And then suppose that this respected couple held back $250,000 so that they would have extra funds for their retirement years (if there is any such thing!), but led people to think that it was the whole amount brought as the offering. And then, in the midst of this deception they die in front of the church. Wouldn’t that be a cause for the local Toms River newspaper or the Asbury Park Press to come out and get a story on what happened? Wouldn’t it strike fear into all of our hearts when we saw it? I mean, down deep, we all know this couple and their devotion to the Lord, and we know what is in our own hearts, don’t we? Perhaps we have done something similar when we have brought a gift or done a good work for the church or some person and wanted people to know about it.
AND in the spirit of transparency, and not wanting to be struck down like Ananias, I just want to say that in Pastor Eric’s message a few weeks ago when he mentioned the fact that I was vacuuming the floor after one of our family meals, let me just say that that is unusual for me (just ask my wife Cindy). I mean, I didn’t have any other pressing issues waiting for me at home, so I just got the vacuum and started doing it. BUT, there are many men (and women) who consistently jump right in and do the tables and chairs and everything else at church events (I won’t mention any of your names because I don’t want to take away your heavenly reward). Eric just happened to catch me at a good time….!
Now, we are all guilty of the sin of deception and self-promotion, aren’t we? And yet, we aren’t struck down like Ananias and Sapphira. AND, don’t we believe that God is never changing in His character and attributes? Doesn’t this seem like the “God of the Old Testament?” I mean, aren’t we under grace now, since Christ has accomplished redemption for us through his sinless life, sacrifice, and resurrection? Why did God (and how COULD He) do such a thing?
Well, let’s look at a few details from the text, just so that we aren’t tempted to think in such a manner.
Peter is fair in his estimation of the situation. That is, he gives Ananias a chance to “come clean” by revealing that it was, in fact, only a part of the total sale of the property.
Peter establishes the fact that that would NOT have been a bad thing, since Ananias had control of the proceeds of the sale even after he had the money in hand.
Peter states that Ananias has lied to (not Peter) but to the Holy Spirit (the first clause) and then validates the deity of the Holy Spirit by saying that he lied to God (the second clause).
SO, this is more than just a “little white lie” to another person or people, but it was a lie to God Himself. And on top of that, remember that Ananias and Sapphira were present right there, perhaps when the Lord Himself was crucified and saw the power (the darkness, the earthquake, the resurrection) or they were at least intimately involved with those who had been physically present), so that alone should have laid heavy on their consciences as they planned their deception.
Peter’s credibility as the standard bearer of God’s truth as an Apostle was being validated in this event. That is, if this deception could be accomplished without there being a consequence to it, then that would be a blight on the power of the Holy Spirit in Peter (and the other apostles). So the power of the Holy Spirit in establishing the truth of Jesus Christ was both positive (with tongues, healings, and powerful declarations of the gospel), but also with demonstrations of judgment.
So, now that we have established that, what is the issue with what may be perceived as a “little white lie?” Why did it carry such import, and why couldn’t it have been handled in a much less consequential manner?
Well, first of all, it impugns the holiness of God. The Spirit is spoken of here in terms of Deity. Remember that the church (spoken of here in verse 11 thusly, the very first time) is very early in its establishment and any little thing that would cause people to question the power and truth of the Spirit’s working would have been magnified.
Secondly, think about the context of what has just happened here. We have just read yet again about how the believers had all things in common and that an upright, good man, Barnabas has just made a significant gift, which was self-sacrificial. And in this story of Ananias and Sapphira, we see a spirit that is diametrically opposed to that air of sacrifice in the church.
Thirdly, from a human standpoint, it DOES seem like this is the act of the God of the Old Testament, doesn’t it. I mean, remember the punishment brought on the children of Israel when they danced around the calf when Moses was up on Mt Sinai and 3,000 people died (Exodus 32)? It also brings back to mind something a little closer to this story, and that is when the Israel defeated Jericho and Aachan hid some of the spoils to keep for himself and then he was found out and he and his family were executed (Joshua 7). Now, remember that this is the same God, one who claims that HE does not change, as men do. SO, the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God the New Testament, and who is the same God today. Now, even though His means of expressing Himself may be somewhat different today, occasions like this event with Ananias and Sapphira are meant to serve to remind us that God is Holy and one to whom we best not approach in a light manner. Our sin, as insignificant as we may view it in our own sinfulness, is nonetheless a serious matter, and the reason why the Son of God had to lead a sinless life and die in our place.
And finally, as to the powerful evidence of the Spirit of God in that time, isn’t it the case that in places where the darkness is so profound and where the truth is so new (as it is in cases of missions in our time in places that have not had the gospel preached), we see very substantial proofs of His working. In this case, it was the sudden and immediate death of a respected couple in the early church for their sin against Him.
Today, it may be a moving of God’s Spirit in a place where there is a lot of devil, or Satanic types of worship. We hear about these things from modern missions. It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s warning to us to take on the armor of God (For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)).
So, from these thoughts, even though we may still be troubled in our minds about the seriousness of this punishment recorded in Acts 5, yet we ought to be comforted by the fact that we have the power of the Spirit of God to fight the devil and his angels in our lives. There is nothing that Satan or his agents can do to us to cause us to sin; remember that we sin when we give in to the temptations brought to us by Satan, but the sin is born out of our own hearts (James 1), like it was with Ananias and Sapphira. Remember the old Flip Wilson show (1960s) in which his constant famous lines in the skits were that the “devil made me do it.” Though funny (and it was said tongue in cheek), nothing is further from the truth.
So, what did this even accomplish in the larger story of the Book of Acts and the acts of the Apostles?
Well, it certainly struck the fear of God in people’s hearts (those “on the fence” and those having joined the church already). It purified the church, it did NOT stop the flow of people believing. The Scripture says that even more were added to their number. (see the apparent contradiction (an irony) in verses 13 and 14. If anything, it likely confirmed the seemingly difficult human choice of following this new way, since many were already or soon would be persecuted for their faith, losing their jobs, being shunned, and even being jailed and perhaps tortured.
Secondly, it established the authority of the Apostles to continue the ministry that they were doing. This event served to add further validation (although negative in its essence) to the work of the Spirit being accomplished through all of the Apostles.
Thirdly, it made a clear declaration of the fact that Peter could (under the Spirit’s direction) assess sin as well as to heal and to do other miracles. If this sin went unnoticed, it would threaten the Apostles authority and it would be a blight on the purity of the church. What I mean by that is that if later it was found out that the offering of Ananias and Sapphira was not the truth as stated, and was not caught by any of the Apostles, then wouldn’t that perhaps make people think that their ministry was not powerful enough to discern that lie and then cast everything else into question? Instead, Peter’s ministry (which was based on the power of the Holy Spirit) was validated in a very significant way. The news spread like wildfire. It gave credence to the truth of the claims of Jesus Christ, not just in the believers’ minds, but also in the minds of those who did NOT believe. This Holy Spirit was truly a force to reckon with!
And so, now we come to the end of our passage for today. We see yet another confirmation of the miracles being performed by the Apostles. Yes, this event of Ananias and Sapphira was rather shocking, but nothing stopped in the advancing of the kingdom of God. It certainly instilled a respect, even in those who were not believers. We read in these verses that many signs and wonders were done by the hands of the Apostles. Now, we don’t know exactly what all of them were, but they were shaking the Jewish temple community to its very foundations. We mentioned earlier the irony in that the passage says that others dare not join them (those would not believe), and yet it says in the very next verse that more than ever believers were added to their number (those who were moved by the Holy Spirit).
And people even brought out their lame and sick to be healed. It reminds us of the way that people approached our Lord during His earthly ministry. The passage says that people even hoped that Peter’s shadow would fall on their sick that they might be healed. This reminds us of what Matthew tells us in his gospel that people tried to just touch the hem of Jesus garment, and that they were healed. So, as you can see, the Apostles had been granted similar power here in healing, during the establishment of the early church. They were healing the sick and those who were possessed by demonic spirits, and people from outside Jerusalem were bringing their sick in as well. Remember that this ministry was still only to those who were coming to believe, within the Jewish community, not the Gentiles, yet…but soon. The ruling temple Jews tolerated the early Christians meetings in Solomon’s Colonnade, but they were just a command away from being arrested and harassed, as we’ll see next week.
So, as in all of Scripture, how does this event point to the cornerstone (Jesus Christ), about which Peter spoke in the last chapter?
It points to the fact that even though this appears in our limited sense of judgment to be a particularly severe punishment, it points to the grace of God in Christ. Christ suffered for our sins (small though they may be perceived by us, they sent him to the cross). When Ananias and Sapphira sinned in their deception and self-promotion, and when we presume upon the grace of God in Christ by sinning, especially those things which we consciously do that we know are wrong, and are even perhaps pricked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, then we just reveal even more the reason why He had to suffer for us. So too often, we can be guilty of what has sometimes been called “cheap grace.” That is, we give lip service to the effects of God’s grace in our lives, but we often live like we don’t. Yes, we’re NOT saved by the works of the law, BUT the true believer, and one who has been sanctified and is growing in Christ, more and more realizes the depth of their sin, and the sacrifice that was made. As we mature in Christ, we realize even more the things in our lives that grieve God. SO, the question ought not to be WHY did God give these two such a severe punishment, but rather why doesn’t God exact the same punishment on us for spurning His grace? It’s a wonder that He is so good as to not punish us immediately, particularly in the kind of deception that we read about in this story.
No man made or man-centered “religion” (syncretism) can stand as the foundation upon which the church will be built. Either we trust in God for His providence in all things (not just financial, but absolutely so in this case), or we sin by not trusting, and perhaps do something similar to what Ananias and Sapphira did in the passage. And you might say, but Rich, isn’t that quite a high bar? I mean, who could ever always trust in the providence of God? Yes, it certainly is true from a human perspective that it is difficult for us to even imagine that. AND, we know that on this side of eternity we’ll never be perfect like our first parents were, but we ought to be striving in that direction. With the dire kind of financial conditions that exist in our world today, it would be easier to fall into the pattern of this couple and to fear that God’s providence will not be enough. But like the Psalm says, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” (Psalm 37:25 ESV) We don’t preach a health and wealth gospel which says that when we become Christians that God will bless us with health and with wealth (although we do believe that there are blessings in following Christ, of course!), but rather we believe in the providence of God through lean times and fat times, just like the Apostle Paul modeled for us. He said that he had learned the secret of being content in bounty OR in want (Philippians 4:11).
So, where is our hope, is it in the things of this world, or is it in Christ alone? In the quiet moments of your days (if you have any….), are you anxious about how you will pay the rent or the mortgage, or how you’ll have enough for food and clothing? It’s not wrong to be concerned about these things, but remember the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount that we ought not to be worried about these things, because our Heavenly Father knows that we have those needs. It may not be a fine new car, or a big house, or a great vacation, but he will provide for his own. Somehow, Ananias and Sapphira got off track and began to worry about His provision. And that was NOT the prevailing attitude amongst those in that early church, but they had all things in common and their needs were being provided for by the sacrifice of others. Ananias and Sapphira (like us) did NOT need to deceive others and promote themselves to protect their nest egg; God was providing for the community of believers.
It gives us hope that our faith is not just a lot of nice platitudes (religious people), but that it is based on truth and purity: a truth that the Holy Spirit ministers to us that we are the children of God and a purity given to us by being dressed in the garment of righteousness due to the sacrifice of Christ. This hope continually points back to the cornerstone, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is NOT based on earthly wisdom, and our own plans.
So, the next time you’re faced with one of those temptations to fall back on your flesh and seek the approval of others, instead of the glory of Christ, take a moment to ponder how serious it is. It’s best to not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3 – what Jesus said about giving to the needy). In other words, let your good works be done in secret and let your reward come from your Heavenly Father. And remember that we have in us the Spirit of God, who brings praise and honor to the Son and helps us to live for Him. Praise God for that!
Let’s pray for that.