Great Grace and Great Fear (Acts 4:32-5:11)
Acts 4:32 to 5:11
Rev Erik Veerman
Great Grace and Great Fear
Our finance committee just let me know that they are starting a new policy. Every Sunday you’ll now be interviewed about your giving. They’re calling it the “Ananias and Sapphira” policy. Just Kidding.
Last week, a satirical website released an article titled “Ananias, Sapphira Claim ‘No Evidence of Widespread Fraud’” In it, Peter is jokingly quoted as saying “when this comes to light, it isn’t gonna be pretty ugly.” Ananias then responded, “Peter just needs to accept the results of our donation and move on.” The article ends with this note: “Despite multiple attempts, the couple could not be reached for additional comments.”
The levity helps, but I think you would agree... In reality, this is a really serious matter. There are some weighty things here. Some difficult questions to answer. This is one reason that our general philosophy is to preach through books of the Bible. Otherwise these hard passages would get skipped. We would miss out some important truths… difficult but helpful truths.
We have to ask why? Why is this here? Why did this happen? This is not the only difficult text in the Bible. There’s also Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. Struck dead because they offered “unauthorized fire” or Achan in Joshua 7, stoned along with his family because of his sin.
And in each of these cases… they didn’t commit murder… there was no adultery. We ask, isn’t this extreme? How come there wasn’t a lesser consequence? Well, when we begin to understand, we’ll have fuller understanding of sin and God and the importance of community.
Community is a big part of these verses. The end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 are meant to go together. That’s because they give us a contrast, Barnabas compared to Ananias and Sapphira. On one hand… selflessness to build up the community… on the other hand, selfishness to the detriment of the community. For Barnabas, a heart desire to lift others up… but for Ananias and Sapphira, a desire to lift themselves up. That’s one thing to see here in these verses. Because it escalated the severity of the sin.
Now, before jumping into the deep end here… let’s first go back to Acts chapter 2. In verse 42, which we studied early last month, the believers dedicated themselves to the “apostles teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the breaking of bread” … it then says “many signs and wonders were performed by the apostles” and also that “they were selling their belongings… and shared the proceeds with all who had need”
That is the summary statement of chapters 3 through 5. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen each of these in more details…. their dedication to the apostles teaching – a teaching focused on the resurrected Christ. We’ve seen one of the miracles of the apostles, also their dedication to prayer, and at the end of chapter 4, here, more details on their commitment to one another.
And so part of the purpose of these verses is to give us a fuller picture of the early church. In fact, verse 5:11 is the first time that word church is used in Acts. As we continue on in Acts, we’ll be given more clarity on the church and her mission. But for now, what a tremendous picture of a commitment to prayer and Jesus and one another, witnessing amazing things… and growing by leaps and bounds with now thousands of believers.
But not all is not rosy.
No, amid these great things… is also conflict and threats. Earlier in chapter 4 we saw the external threats of the religious hypocrites… and we’ll see more of that next week. But today, a different kind of threat, an internal threat. One that is fueled by Satan, himself! Peter tells Ananias that Satan is the one who tempted and filled his heart to lie. Satan has everything to worry about. Jesus had defeated death in the resurrection. He’s ascended and reigning now… and the church is exploding in growth centered around the Gospel. So the great enemy of the church, the same one who tempted eve, begins his lies and deceit in the church.
Let’s turn now to the details…
This morning, two points. You’ll see those on the back of the bulletin. And they are contrasting points. First, serving one another – the picture of grace and unity in the early church… And second, serving oneself. The internal conflict. And in that second point, seeing the devastating consequences of sin, especially when it seeks to compromise the fellowship of believers.
1.) Serving one another
First, serving one another. The end of chapter 4 is a tremendous testimony of God’s faithfulness, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the early church’s focus on the risen Christ.
They were unified in so many ways. They were unified in prayer. We saw that last week. They were unified in their commitment to one another, and the teaching about Jesus and the Gospel. They loved and cared for each other. The phrase used in verse 32 is “one heart and soul.” They were a band of brothers and sisters. Their “one heart” was their unity around what they believed in and their purpose. “One soul” would be like saying they had “one spirit.” There was a sense of great accord. And they were, of course, united in Christ. One heart in Him, and one soul in Him.
Their unity included their testimony of faith. We see that in verse 33. They continued to focus on Jesus and the resurrection. If you remember, this is one of the overall themes…. The resurrected and ascended Christ. We’ll continue to see this emphasis all through Acts. And as the apostles were testifying to Christ, it says it was with great power. Where did that power come from? Well, it came from the Holy Spirit. We know that from verse 31, one verse earlier from our text. I did a quick word study. Already in these 4 chapters, the Holy Spirit is mentioned 13 times. Another theme of Acts. God’s Spirit working through them.
And because of this unity in Christ and through His Spirit, they loved each other. One way they cared for each other was by making sure each person had provision. They achieved that by pooling together resources from their fellowship. That involved selling land and houses.
In Jerusalem at this time, I read that most people were poor. Archeologists estimate that only 10% of the population were middle class, and only 5-7% upper class. That would mean that over 80% of the people were of meager means. That would explain this great need. They recognized the need. The burden for each other was so great. Some sold their property to help care for the body of believers.
I mentioned a few weeks ago. This was not forced… not the seeds of communism. We’ll see that clearly at the beginning of chapter 5. People were not “voluntold” to do this. You know, “you have to volunteer to do this.” No, with one heart and soul, with great generosity, they shared their resources.
And it was organized. They would bring the proceeds to the apostles. It says they “laid it at the apostle’s feet” meaning they dedicated their resources to the church.
What was the result of all this? the end of verse 33 says that “great grace was upon them.” Great grace. Through this unity, serving and loving one another… God gave them great grace. Great power in their testimony and great grace in their unity. Later, we’ll read, great fear. It’s the same word “great” in each case.
If such a thing as time travel existed… you know a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, Bill & Ted’s time capsule, an infinity time stone, HG Wells’ time machine. You name it. If I could time travel, Jerusalem around 32 AD would be on my top 5 list. To see and experience this great grace. Then we could even more fully apply what they did to our fellowship.
Yesterday was our 5-month anniversary as a new church. That’s maybe 3-4 months older than the early church in Jerusalem at this time. By God’s great grace, we’ve experienced a similar unity, a serving of each other. But if we could even more fully…
• unite ourselves together as they did,
• declare the hope of the resurrection in every situation as they did,
• and love and serve each other as much as they did…
• what a joy it would be to experience even greater grace… just as they did.
As part of his description, Luke, the author of Acts… also shares about someone who exemplified this community. Barnabas. His given name was Joseph, but people called him Barnabas. That means son of encouragement, because of how he modelled this grace, unity and generosity. Really, this is also an introduction to Barnabas. We’ll get to know him more throughout Acts. He was well regarded and is a living testimony to the unity of the early church.
Now, for the astute scholar, you’ll know that a Levite was not supposed to own land. That was part of the Old Testament ceremonial law. By this time, though, that convention was likely reserved for the priests. Not all Levites were priests. But also, Barnabas was from Cyprus, it says, far from Jerusalem, which would further disconnect him from the Levitical customs. Whatever the reason, Barnabas had land, graciously sold it, and gave the proceeds for the building up of the early church.
To summarize the first point… this early church community was growing by leaps and bounds and was blessed with unity and grace as they served one another in Christ. An encouragement and model for us… something we should strive for, desiring to see in our fledgling community, Tucker Pres.
2.) Serving oneself
But… things aren’t all positive. That’s the first word of chapter 5, “but.” It both transitions to chapter 5 and indicates a contrast. If the end of chapter 4 is about serving one another… chapter 5 begins with a story of self-serving. It wasn’t about serving the community. Rather, serving oneself.
At the heart of the Ananias and Sapphira’s situation is their own reputation. Do you see, they wanted to be like a Barnabas. We’re not told whether they actually had Barnabas in mind. What they wanted, though, was the benefits of giving without the cost… to be admired but without giving up what they had.
Look at verse 4 of chapter 5. Here we learn more about this practice of selling property. Peter said to them “While [your property] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” What Peter is saying is this: “You didn’t have to sell your property. And, even after selling your property, the money was still yours. You didn’t have to bring it to share.” You see how this was a voluntary thing. From verse 4, we learn two things about Ananias and Sapphira’s sin.
First, it’s about them. Pride and coveting. “But wait,” you say, “they gave their money away. How could it be about coveting?” Imagine the conversation they had…
“Honey, have you heard about those people selling their property? People see them and they are drawn to them. Everyone looks up to them.”
“My dear, you’re right. Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of reputation in the community? What if we sold our property and gave the proceeds to the apostles?
“But oh, we can’t afford that. How are we going to pay for the lease on our new horse and chariot, or going out to eat at Herod’s Steak House, or our trips to Athens and Rome?”
“I have an idea! What if we sold this one piece of property we own, but we keep some of the money for ourselves. We could have the reputation and the money. I mean, nobody will find out.”
“My dear, what a devil of an idea!
“Honey, it’s a breathtaking idea!”
Part of their sin was a prideful coveting. Coveting a certain reputation.
The second direct thing we learn about their sin is lying. But, it’s more than that, isn’t it? Not only did they lie to Peter. They didn’t even consider God. It didn’t occur to them that God would know the thoughts and intentions of their heart. Peter gets to this pretty quickly, pointing out that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit… verse 3, and verse 9, Sapphira tested the Spirit of the Lord. Meaning she put the Lord to the test, not trusting him. So in their hypocrisy, they ignored God, lying to the Holy Spirit.
We tend to read this passage… and only think about the lying part. But a clearer application is this: don’t pretend to serve others while you are just trying to serve yourself or build your reputation.
Well, what happened next? For Ananias in verse 5 and for Sapphira in verse 10, as soon as Peter confronted each of them with their sin, they breathed their last.
The judgment still seems harsh, does it not?
Well, before we consider whether the punishment fits the crime, let’s look at their sin a little deeper.
Besides sinning against God, they sinned against the community. Their selfish deceit threatened the unity of the church. Their false testimony went against the testimony of Jesus. They didn’t serve one another, but served themselves. Unlike the generosity of the broader community, theirs was a false hypocritical generosity.
Ananias and Sapphira’s sin was very similar to the sin of a man named Achan. We find that account in Joshua 7.
When God had led his people into the promised land. He gave them an amazing display of his power. The walls of the fortified city of Jericho fell. And when that happened, God command them not to take the spoils, the plunder from Jericho. Yet in the rubble of Jericho, Achan saw and coveted silver coins, gold bars, and this beautiful coat of fine fabric. He took it for himself, literally kept it back. There’s only 3 places in Scripture where that word kept or kept back is used. One of them is in Joshua 7 in the Greek translation of the OT. And a second is our text here, Acts 5:3. Achan took what was not his. Ananias and Sapphira took was originally theirs but which they had dedicated to God. The third is Titus 2:10 where it’s translated pilfering, which basically means stealing.
Comparing Achan to Ananias and Sapphira…
• In both cases, coveting.
• In both cases, lying or concealing. Achan buried what he took.
• In both cases, ignoring God, not considering his knowledge of their sin.
• In both cases, the sin was also against the community.
• And also in both cases, they had witnessed God’s powerful and mighty hand. For Achan, when the trumpets blew, he experienced Jerico’s walls crashing down from the inside out. For Ananias and Sapphira, witnessing the miracles and signs of the apostles.
Both Achan and Ananias and Sapphira rejected God in their actions, lied to Him, and sinned against the community. And God brought swift action.
The description in Proverbs 6 fits Ananias and Sapphira. We read it earlier in our service. The Lord hates a lying tongue, haughty eyes, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord. Of the list of seven deadly sins in Proverbs 6, the only one that doesn’t fit is the shedding of innocent blood. But for the rest … guilty as charged. As proverbs says, “therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing.”
The severity of their sin goes much deeper than a surface reading. Sin deserves judgment and death. Even deserves immediate death. But God is merciful.
Here in these verses and with Achan… we are given a glimpse of the consequences of sin. A stark reminder. For God’s people who had just crossed the Jordan river… and for the early church just beginning. It is a warning that God hates sin and He passionately cares about the unity of his people.
He justly acts to demonstrate that. We have a hard time reconciling that fact because God is merciful 99.999999999 percent of the time.
The Bible teaches that any and all sin justly deserves punishment. From the seemingly inconsequential sin of eating too much pecan pie at Thanksgiving… to the devastating sin of murder. Each deserves what Ananias and Sapphira received. There’s no difference in the eternal consequences. The punishment is the same – judgment and death at the hand of God. Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit. The HOLY Spirit. The righteous God. And they received what they deserved.
Now, to be sure, there is a difference between the ultimate consequences of sin and the severity of sin. While all sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, some sin is more severe, more heinous in God’s eyes. Jesus spoke about greater sin. Ezekiel prophesied about increasingly greater abominations… sin worse than what had come before. So while any sin deserves God’s full judgment, the gravity and severity of sin can differ.
Well, the word got out. Ananias and Sapphira… dead. Buried. We’re told that fear came upon the whole church. Verses 5 and 11. A fear of God… because all throughout, it’s God who responded, God who acted. The Holy Spirit who revealed their sin to Peter. It’s God who they tested and failed.
Great fear. Twice it says that.
And I think we can understand the fear. You may be sitting there and thinking, “I deserve this same punishment.” Well, you do. I do. We deserve to be struck dead, just as Ananias and Sapphira were. And we need to have that fear of God… revering him for his holiness and justice and power.
But this is not contrary to the great grace they had. Godly fear helps us to see God’s grace more fully. When we see what we deserve, when we understand God in his mighty justice… it’s then we realize the depth of God’s grace.
For those who believe in Christ… the punishment that you and I deserve has not just been taken away for a period of time. No, God has abolished the punishment. He’s satisfied the judgment. Atoned for the sin. And he accomplished it all through Christ.
Our judgement has been wiped out by Jesus. He bore on the cross what we deserved. He was struck down for our iniquity, our sin… our lying, our coveting, our self-centeredness. That is the great grace that is yours in Christ, if you turn from your sin, believing in him by faith.
Briefly in closing… this account of Ananias and Sapphira should cause us to have great fear… but a fear that knows and see the great grace in the Gospel. And in that great fear and through that great grace, and with that great power of the Holy Spirit… we can seek to fulfill God’s calling for his church – unity in prayer, testifying to the resurrection, and selfless generosity like Barnabas.