How do you get up in front of a bunch of people and talk about 2 people in the early church that God put to death for lying? Very carefully. Yesterday at Orchard Community Church I preached on Acts 4:32 – 5:16 which includes the account Ananias and Sapphira. I had a lot of hesitation on what to say and how to say it.
Here’s a quick summary of the passage: Acts 4:32-37 talks about the amazing love at work in the early church that was expressed in sacrificial giving for each other. I absolutely love these snapshots that occur throughout the book of Acts. I think they encourage us to be a better church and to realize that it actually is possible to live out our faith together in this world in a way that makes a difference. Acts 5:1-11 introduces Ananias and Sapphira. They seem to want the recognition that others received for giving sacrificially, but they didn’t want to actually make a sacrifice. They sold some property, gave some of the money to the church and kept some for themselves. This is not a problem. Peter (the leader of the church at that time) even makes it clear that they had every right to do this. The problem was that they said they were giving all of the money from the sale. What should have been an expression of worship and trust in God instead is made into an act of self glorification and greed. So God takes the lives of Ananias and Sapphira.
As I prepared to teach this passage on Sunday, one question kept ringing through my head: What was the big deal? Weren’t other people in the early church sinners? Didn’t others do things that were wrong? Why does God make a big deal out of this?
What really helped me was that this story reminded me of two others. The first that came to my mind was the story of Nadab and Abihu from Leviticus 10:1-2. Nadab and Abihu had been in the presence of God with Moses and the other elders of Israel (check it out in Exodus 24:1-10. this is an amazing passage!). They had received very specific instructions on how to serve in the Tabernacle, particularly in regard to the burning of incense (Exodus 30:34-38). Yet one day they decide to do an experiment and burn something different. After all, what’s the big deal? Evidently it was a big deal because fire came out from the inner room, from the presence of God in the Tabernacle, and consumed them.
The other story that came to mind was the story of Achan from Joshua chapter 7. The battle of Jericho was a key moment for the young Israelite nation. God was teaching them to depend on Him and not on their own ideas. The old song is wrong, Joshua did NOT fight (or “fit”?) the battle of Jericho so that the wall came crumbling down. It was God! It was His battle and His victory that He won for His people to show them that His presence with them and this was a very big deal. The people were told not to keep any of the precious things they found after the battle (Joshua 6:18-19) because these were all to be given to God to show that it was His victory so the spoils of the battle belonged to Him. But Achan didn’t obey. He kept some silver and gold and a beautiful robe for himself because he evidently thought it was no big deal. Turns out he was wrong and he paid for that choice with his life.
So what was the big deal? What made these particular instances so bad? I really prayed about this and spent a lot of time reading about it and here’s what finally hit me. Their actions denied the existence and/or the power of God. This is true of all sin to some degree, but it was true in these instances to a great degree. The other thing that was a big deal was the timing. In each case God was at work teaching His people that He was with them – in the tabernacle, in the battles, and in the early church. The very thing that God was working to to establish was what these people were undermining. They were treating the presence and work of God like it was no big deal and God had to act to show that this was completely wrong. The lie of Ananias and Sapphira threatened to drain the power out of the gospel mission of the early church by treating God’s Presence as no big deal.
God is with us. He has poured His presence – His Holy Spirit – into the lives of all who trust in Jesus as their savior. This is a very big deal. We cannot live and act as if it hasn’t happened. I don’t think we necessarily need to live with the fear that God is going to strike us down at any moment, but we certainly can’t go to the opposite extreme either and live like it’s just no big deal. The impact of this realization in the early church was huge. Acts 5:12-16 shows that the church continued to grow because people realized that the Power of God was present in the early church – just as He is present with us today.
Here are two quotes I used in the sermon. Maybe they will get you thinking like they did for me:
“(W)e are for the most part tempted to go about our daily business in this world without giving God much thought. Indeed, we are tempted to live as though God did not exist, or at least as if his existence did not practically matter. In short, one of the most insidious temptations fostered within contemporary secular society and culture, a temptation rendered uniquely plausible by the ideas and assumptions embedded within modern institutional life, is the temptation to practical atheism” (Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World: Or, Why it’s Tempting to Live as if God Doesn’t Exist, 2).
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982, found on wikiquote.org).
If you were at Orchard Sunday, how did God challenge you? If you went to another church, what did you learn and how did God use it to challenge and/or encourage you? Click “Leave a Comment” below and let me know!