Preached by Ben Bechtel
We all love a good scandal. In American society today we love to know the juicy details lurking behind a situation where things have gone horribly wrong. If we’re honest, this is why so many of us pay attention to what is going on in politics. In politics someone is always mad at someone else for doing x or y thing. Frequently politics involves shady or mysterious dealings that we long to know more about. This is the same reason why we love reality TV or why we all crowd around and peek out the window to see why the cops are at our neighbor’s house. But the truth of the matter is, we all love a good scandal until it involves us. If we are the perpetrators or the victims in a scandal it stops becoming a fun spectator sport because it directly involves our lives.
The passage we are going to study this morning contains the first scandal in the early church. It will be tempting for us to read the story of Ananias and Sapphira this morning in the same way we watch a reality TV show. However, this story doesn’t present a distant scandal at which to gawk but an ever-present threat that is alive and well in the church today.
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
5 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[f] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
There are three realities about the church revealed in this passage that apply to the church today. *explicit outline*
1. The Unity of the Church (4:32-35)
It is no secret that one of the largest struggles in our modern society is loneliness. Loneliness has risen to such epidemic levels in many different western nations that some governments have even begun to address the issue as a healthcare crisis. In October 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom stated in a press release that loneliness “is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.” The press release goes on to say, “up to a fifth of all UK adults feel lonely most or all of the time and…loneliness can be as bad for health as obesity or smoking.” The UK earlier that year actually appointed a dedicated government official, the Minister of Loneliness to help address this problem. Things are no different across the pond. We live in a country that is chronically lonely, where the machine gun of individualism has left a nation of victims in its wake.
This is largely why the end of Acts 4 sounds so wonderful to many of you sitting here this morning, whether you consider yourself a churchgoer or you are thoroughly non-religious. This vision of radical, invasive, self-sacrificial, generous community is compelling to all of us living in the age of loneliness. This also strikes us as an entirely impractical and unattainable vision of community in our modern world. Especially as capitalistic, individualistic Americans we have such trouble hearing this. Many of us have had communism alarms going off in our heads since we first opened our Bibles and saw the passage we were studying together! Sharing of resources and no poor among the people sounds like an un-American fantasy world.
Let’s read Verses 32-33 again and see if we can remove some this cultural baggage:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
Notice several things from these verses. First, the text says they are “of one heart and soul.” The nature of this community was that they were united together at the deepest fabrics of their being. And this immaterial, spiritual unity expressed itself in tangible, material generosity. Second, notice what produces this type of unity: the experience of gospel grace. It is only the gospel of Jesus’s resurrection that can produce this type of unity and generosity. The gospel produces this type of unity in the church by changing each of us in two ways:
a. The Gospel Changes Our View of Money
Let me turn off everyone’s beeping communism alarms. If you look with me again at verse 32, you’ll notice that it says they didn’t count the things which belonged to them as their own. These things did still belong to them. They still owned private property. Now, I say that not to make a political or philosophical point nor to let us off the hook but to show that this church practiced voluntary generosity that flowed out of its unity. This wasn’t compulsory but freely given. And this generosity came from this church’s understanding of the gospel.
You see, the gospel says that although we brought nothing but our sin to the table, God loved us anyway. Listen to the words of 2 Cor. 8:9:
9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Jesus, though he possessed the riches of heaven made himself poor by becoming a human being and dying for your sin. Now through his resurrection he offers you his life and riches free of charge. You don’t buy yourself into relationship with God. It’s all of grace, given freely to you. Now out of this wealth of grace you are empowered to give away your material possessions because of the way God has given freely to you. The church experiences the “great grace” of God tangibly as the gospel of God’s generosity changes people and generosity flows out of the heart to others.
b. The Gospel Changes Our View of Community
When you trust in Christ, not only are you united to Christ and have a relationship with Christ, but you are also united to and have a relationship with everyone else who is united to Christ. We all tend to view ourselves and our families as exclusive little communities. When we become Christians, we learn that we are more closely united with other Christians than even our own families.
There was a church that we partnered with a few years ago on our youth missions’ trip in Atlanta that had a saying I loved. They would say, “as the church we aren’t like family, we are family.” In the gospel, you are united to your fellow brothers and sisters in this room as one family. If we are honest, we would only display the type of generosity described in this passage for our own families. And yet, the gospel tells you that you are surrounded by family this morning. You are not looking around this room at strangers who come into the same room once a week to sing and listen to a person talk. You are looking at your family! Do you view your fellow church members this way? Does that impact the way you live together with them?
The gospel tells us Christ has radically disadvantaged himself to lift you up out of your sin and make you rich in his grace. You have greater wealth in him than anything this world can offer you! And all the people in this church are your family! How can we continue to look at our own home equity and 401k as more valuable than the needs of your own family? Do you see the grace of God for us to experience in this generous life?
2. A Threat to the Church (4:36-5:11)
After presenting for us this compelling vision of what a church community united in the gospel can look like, Luke tells us of two people, one a positive example and the other a negative example. Joseph, or Barnabas as he’s known throughout the rest of the book of Acts, is an example of this beautiful, self-sacrificial generosity. Ananias and Sapphira, not so much.
This story is one of the most infamous in the entire Bible. Can you imagine what this would have been like? Picture a church service here in which we are taking an offering for needs in our community in the front of the church. Right as the band starts playing a dramatic song a well-respected, wealthy man marches down the aisle and after looking over his shoulder to see who’s watching places a wad of cash in the plate. And then Benjamin confronts him, and he falls down dead and Gary and the ushers come in and drag him out. That would be traumatic! This is why many people see this story as depicting a primitive God blowing a fuse over something that really isn’t a big deal. On the surface when we think about it, this seems like a pretty fair claim. This story should unsettle us and make us uncomfortable. In order to examine this claim, it will be helpful to ask what exactly Ananias and Sapphira do wrong to elicit this response.
As we read the story, what becomes clear is that their sin is not that they wanted to keep back some of the money for themselves. We see this clearly in verse 4 when Peter tells them that they had the right to do with the land what they wanted. They didn’t have to give all of the money away. The foundation of their sin was that they wanted to not give all of it but still look like they did. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted recognition without true sacrifice. Their generosity was only surface generosity, not heart generosity.
However, it does appear that greed is involved in their hearts. In verse 2 it says:
2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
That word that is translated “knowledge” here is actually a word that means to make someone an accomplice. Ananias and Sapphira conspire together so that they can greedily keep their money and look just as good as Barnabas who sold everything and gave it to the church. This is where things get even more interesting. It’s likely, because they both owned land that both Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira were wealthy people. What we have in this text is Ananias and Sapphira trying to posture themselves to look just as generous as the other wealthy person in the church. It is a rivalry of the rich. It is a disgusting cocktail of greed and hypocrisy. The gospel has not changed their hearts towards money or the church, resulting in their greed and desire to look good in the eyes of others. And these same hindrances to the unity of the church and the spread of the gospel still threaten the church today.
But, there is still one more piece to this story that helps us grasp the gravity of this situation in the early church. Let’s read verse 3:
3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?
Peter pulls back the curtain for us here to show us the real gravity of what is going on. (Satan, the great enemy of the church seeks to demolish the unity and witness of the church by making God’s people into hypocrites. And we go right along with his ploys. This is an even bigger hindrance than we thought. The church in Acts 4 is being shaped by the gospel into a beautiful, generous community centered around the worship of the resurrected Jesus. Persecution doesn’t work so Satan seeks to sow sin and comparison and hypocrisy into the church in order to tear her apart and derail the plans of God. He seeks to do the same today.
This all puts God’s righteous anger in perspective for us. God takes the fellowship and unity of his people so seriously that he fights to protect it. He came to earth and laid down his life so that this community of generosity may be formed. He will not tolerate the public defilement of his holy people. Now, we realize that God doesn’t show up and judge this definitively in our regular church experience. This type of judgment had a special place because of this time in biblical history to show his church not to take sin lightly. What should our response be to this righteous judgment of God? The parallel verses of 5 and 11 tell us that this story of judgment should cause us to fear God in reverence, being careful to take unity as seriously as he does.
Church, let us be watchful against sin and hypocrisy in our own hearts that would tear us apart. Let us fight against greed and covetousness, jealousy and gossip. Let us not harbor bitterness and be quick to confess sin and address wrong-doing humbly with one another. Let us watch our own hypocrisy, that we are not happy, encouraging, have-it-all-together Christians on Sunday morning while living another life the rest of the week. Let us guard against making our own little kingdoms out of our families with our own financial goals and dreams for our children which do not line up with the kingdom of God and its mission. Let’s be watchful against the individualism which so haunts our culture that keeps us from sacrificing our own plans and desires for anyone else. So many things threaten our unity, and yet we have the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus binding us together.
Let us fear our own propensity to tear the church apart by our own sin, take our sin to God, and let the gospel change our greedy and hypocritical selves into generous and loving people.
3. The Witness of the Church (5:12-16)
Notice that after this story of Ananias and Sapphira, the people respond to the church either with acceptance of the gospel or respect for their message. Verses 12-16 tell us that God doesn’t just care about the purity and unity of the church for her own sake but also for the sake of the world. Only a church that displays its unity in Christ will be a compelling witness to the reality of Jesus to a watching world. Do you see what this whole passage teaches us? As sin is dealt with and the unity and generosity of the church is maintained, the church is a vibrant witness to Jesus.
We all know this to be true, don’t we? Unfortunately, we know this in a negative sense. Even in the last few years many prominent churches and church leaders have compromised the witness of the church by the way in which they have fallen into sin. This absolutely destroys people not only in those churches but also those in that city. This type of hypocrisy and sin lead people to reject the gospel and view the church as just a bunch of judgmental hypocrites. Maybe you’re here this morning and it is Christians that have been keeping you from Christianity. We’re so glad you’re here and we hope to embody something completely different by God’s grace.
Our calling then as a church is to take our unity and generosity and put it on display for the world to see. As we confess our own poverty and sin, seek to understand the gospel of God’s riches for us poor sinners, and live generous lives towards one another we become a witness to Jesus in this world corporately. So often times we rightly as pastors encourage you as the church to go individually and share the gospel with your friends, coworkers, and neighbors. However, we neglect to encourage the church to think about ways in which we can be a witness together out in the world for the sake of the world. We need to not only be family within the walls of this church but we need to take this weekly family reunion out so the whole world can see it.
As we close, I want to encourage us all to think about ways in which we can display the beauty and community of the church family to the world, ways that we can witness together. How can we display the generosity of this family to the neighborhood that we’re in? This isn’t just a theoretical sermon question thrown out rhetorically. If you have ideas for how we might do this as a church please talk to me or one of our pastors! We want to showcase the beauty of the gospel through our fellowship so that this neighborhood can see! Small groups, what could you all do to this end? Maybe you could pick a local public school and volunteer to wash football jerseys or get coffee and donuts for the teachers once a month. Or maybe you all meet at one person’s house regularly for small group. Once a month or every other week, what if you had a small group dinner at this same house and intentionally invited your neighbors to the meal as well?
Think about the witness that a unified, humble church could be in the world today! In a world where loneliness is an epidemic, where greed and individual comfort are valued above other people, may this church through our generosity bear witness to our infinitely generous God who has given himself for impoverished and needy people like us.
 You can read the entire press release at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy.