Truth and the Early Church

Title: Truth and the Early Church


Text: Acts 5:1-11

Time: June 23rd, 2008

In our study of the Book of Acts we come to the strange tale of two Christians in the early first century church named Ananias and his wife Saphira. They are forever famous – or should I say, infamous – because they lost their lives over a lie. Evidently they claimed to sell a piece of property in their possession and give the entire proceeds of the sale to the church for distribution to the needy, but instead of giving all the money to the church for the needy, they in fact kept back some of the money all the while claiming to have given the entire amount for charity. This lie was exposed and the Apostle Peter confronted them with it, and in the process of dealing with them, they both dropped dead. It’s a strange account because it’s not exactly clear what actually happened. Did their deception become known through natural processes, like someone tipping off the church, or did God reveal to Peter that the two were lying? And how did they die, exactly? Did they drop dead of heart attics or were they killed directly by God Almighty? And then, a question that modern people might ask today in a free and democratic society: what’s the big deal? So these two claimed to give the whole amount to the church, but in reality they kept back a little for themselves? So, again, what’s the big deal? So they lied? Is lying the unforgivable sin? Even if they lied, was it that big of an issue for them to have to pay with their lives? In our pragmatic world of practical results, in our just-get-it-done business culture, one might reply that at least the church got a good donation, why make an issue of their keeping back some of the money? Yes, they did announce to the congregation that they were giving it all to the church, but maybe they changed their minds – that’s possible. What’s the big crime they committed? Why is it such a major issue that the lead apostle Peter himself has to intervene to confront the two? Why not leave well enough alone and thank God for the contribution they did make? Maybe there would be contributions forthcoming in the future by the same couple from the sale of other properties, why risk alienating them with a technicality? These and other responses are imaginable. Just what was the big concern of Peter and the rest of the church over the issue of Ananias and Saphira? It all boils down to one thing – truth. Remember, this was the very earliest stage of Christianity, this was at the very beginning of the Christian church. Being the foundation of the faith, any defect, any error, anything wrong or false, in attitude or action at this stage would set a precedent for the future. What Peter, the apostles, and the other Christians – and ultimately God himself – were saying with the whole incident with Ananias and Saphira was that truth, ultimate truth, matters. Getting doctrine right, getting moral behavior right, getting the church right is not only important but essential. We need to hear that message again, especially in our age where – like I said before – there is an attitude of, “Oh well, the ends justify the means, let’s not get technical about things.” God is saying to us today that at least in one place on earth, the church, truth must be taken absolutely serious. In the church, truth must be closely followed at all costs. Let’s explore this whole issue further. Acts 5:1-11 (read).

First, what was the exact sin of Ananias and Sapphira? Acts 5:3-4,”Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept back for yourself some of the money you received for the land? . . . You have not lied to men but to God.’” So evidently the sin was that the couple had promised or pledged to sell a piece of land and give the money to the church, but they didn’t, they kept back some of the money but still claimed to have given it all to the church. That was a lie. Now the problem is that we don’t know the full story because obviously there is more to the story than we read here in the Book of Acts. Peter says that they have not lied to man but to God. That’s an odd way of putting it if this couple had simply lied to church people when they claimed that they were giving all the money from the sale of the property to the church. There’s something more happening here. Maybe they stood up in the midst of the congregation during a church service and volunteered to give all the money from their land to the church. Maybe they gave testimony to the power of God to save and change their lives, and as a result, they were so inspired and so changed that they now promised the Lord they’d give their money away, much like Zacchaeus the tax collector after his encounter with Jesus. Luke 19:8-9, “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house. . . .’” So we see there is something more than just a lie. After all, people lie all the time, unfortunately, so do Christians. It’s not right, it’s a sin, it shouldn’t be done, God is not pleased with it, God may even discipline the person for it, but is it an offense that should earn the death penalty? That’s what happened here in the early church. For their sin of lying, Ananias and his wife Sapphira were given the death penalty by God. But since we know that God doesn’t normally kill people for committing the sin of lying, we then know that there is something more important taking place here than a simple lie. Another clue as to why this lie is different than an average, ordinary lie might be Peter’s peculiar charge against them: “You have lied to the Holy Spirit.” What does it mean to lie to the Holy Spirit? How is it even possible to lie to the Holy Spirit? This statement makes no sense unless the Holy Spirit was a very real, tangible, close, present reality for early Christians, maybe something we know very little about today. If the Spirit were powerfully present in the early church, then Peter’s reaction would make perfect sense; it would indeed be a grave sin. But there’s more.

Two, how was the lie or deception exposed? Acts 5:3-4, “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’” We see that Peter seemed to know a lot about the facts of the case, but the question is, how did Peter know all this information, and most importantly, how did he know that they had kept back part of the money for themselves even as they told others that they had given it all away? Did someone rat on Ananias and Sapphira? Crime detectives often say that the most common way for criminals to get caught is for them to go talking about their crime to somebody and then this other person tipping off the police. If the crooks would just shut up and not blab about it, they would most likely get away with it. But most people can’t resist the urge to tell somebody how clever they are, and then, that is their undoing. Is that what Ananias and Sapphira did – told somebody? But then that brings up the point, why did they do it? Why claim to give the whole amount of the land to the church and then keep some back? It seems they wanted it both ways: they wanted the glory and honor for being so generous, and at the same time, they wanted the money too. They wanted to be seen as godly, sacrificial, giving Christians, yet in reality, they weren’t or at least not to the extent they were portraying themselves. Yes, they were generous because they did give money to the church, but they were trying to appear more generous than they really were in fact. They wanted a better reputation than they deserved; they were willing to lie and deceive to get it. I think we can understand their motives. We all want a good reputation; we all want glory, honor, a good reputation. Maybe they wanted to be seen as the most generous people in the church. Maybe they were secretly competing with others in the church for the position of most generous with money; they wanted to win that title even if they had to cheat to get it. It’s a lesson for us all. Don’t claim more than you are or have. Honestly portray yourself. Don’t try to come across as better than you really are – in any area. Don’t be a hypocrite. That’s what the Pharisees did, they worked hard at putting forth an image of their holiness and spiritual condition that was better than they really were in fact. Ananias and Sapphira did the same, that was their sin. But again, how did Peter know? The text seems to imply that the Spirit revealed it to Peter directly. Again, this scenario would fit the description of the early church as being in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to a degree we can’t hardly understand. Back then, the Spirit was very close, very near. Consequently, because God knows all things and is indeed everywhere, and because the apostles were so close to God in pray, it was easy for God to communicate to Peter the deception. How would you like it if God were that close to the Christian church today? Would you feel intimidated? Would you like that supernatural atmosphere, or would you feel convicted for your sins? That’s something to think about.

Third, what happened to Ananias and Sapphira? Acts 5:5-7, 10, “When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. . . . At that moment she fell down at this feet and died. Then the young men came in and finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.” Now what really happened to them? One Bible commentary I was reading says that they both probably had heart attacks, but I don’t think that’s what happened. That sounds like a modern psychological explanation similar to calling demon possession simply a mental disease or some other psychiatric disorder. No. It’s not that easy. Again, the Bible seems to imply that God struck them both down for their sin of deception. The Bible is full of accounts where God himself strikes down individuals for their sins. In fact, we are warned not to take the Lord’s Super or Holy Communion in an unworthy manner without confessing our sins and taking it seriously, or else we might fall ill because of the punishment of God. That’s found in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, “Therefore, whosever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty for sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of your have fallen asleep.” So it appears that Ananais and Sapphira died because of their sin of lying. Isn’t that a good motivation to tell the truth? I can’t think of a better reason for telling the truth, and being careful to be honest in all your dealings. If you aren’t, if I’m not, God just might kill us. That’s hard, but that’s the truth. Peter says another interesting thing to Sapphira in verse 9: “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” Now what does he mean to “test” the Spirit of the Lord? Obviously, to see if they could get away with deception. They were testing whether or not they could get away with lying in the church. Lying is a pretty common occurrence today in our time, but it’s always been something pretty common in all times, ancient or modern. People lie. You’ve lied, I’ve lied. It’s a sin. it’s wrong. But it’s a common temptation because the truth isn’t always convenient. There’s the old joke. The boss walks in and confronts a worker: “Did you do it?” The worker replies, “I didn’t do it!” The boss then says, “You’re fired for not doing it.” The worker replies, “For not doing what?” The boss says, “Doing your job! I hired you to do your job and you just said you didn’t do it. You are fired.” Sometimes it feels like you can’t win either way. But we are all tempted to lie, but we must resist, because God sees us always and He may pay us back for our dishonesty. That’s what he did to Ananias and Sapphira.

Fourth, what was the result of Ananias and Sapphira’s situation? Acts 5: 11, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” The result was that the church was given a wake up call from God – treat truth carefully, never casually. If there is one place on earth that should treat truth with the utmost respect it is the Church of Jesus Christ. If there is one place that we should be able to trust 100% and totally rely on to give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God, it’s the church. But instead of the truth, what we see in our day and age, is the church falling into the old familiar sinful pattern of lies, cover-up, deceptions, just like the world. I’m thinking of the Catholic Church priest sexual abuse and cover-up situation of a couple of years ago. Instead of being upfront and honest about the whole problem, the church was careful to try to put forth a false image of itself and present itself as pure and holy all the while some of its own members of the clergy were involved in awful sin. That cannot be tolerated. We must be able to trust the church. Also, in the protestant church, we witnessed a few years ago the televangelist scandals. There were lies, there were cover ups, there were misrepresentations, there were deceptions. Instead of strict honesty, there was dishonesty. That’s what is so disappointing. Why was God so severe and hard on these early Christians in respect to the truth, honesty, integrity, openness, truth-telling? Because he wanted to establish a church of truth and set a record or precedent for the serious obedience to truth. Why? Because the church must be a place you can trust, that I can trust, that we can all trust. We must be able to feel safe in the church. Everywhere else out in the world is full of lies and deceptions. Business is full of misrepresentations. Politics, as we all know, is full of lies and half-truths. There are polite lies spoken among friends, and even families half their family secrets, but there must be one place where people can expect and get the truth – that’s the church. The issue in the Christian church is truth-telling, credibility, integrity. There should be no hint of fraud, dishonesty, or a hoax in the church. There should be nothing secret (that’s why Christians have always been against, at least in principle, secret societies, because there should be nothing hidden in the church). There should be total transparency, no skeletons in the closet. That’s why the movie The Di Vinci Code was so devastating towards the Catholic church because it suggested that the church had covered up the true identity of Christ in respect to Mary Magdalene. As we know now, there was no such cover-up, but the perception was put forth that there was a cover up in the church, and that strikes at the heart of the credibility of the truth of Christianity.

What can we learn from the account of Aninias and Sapphira? That truth and truth-telling is very serious. We must treat truth as a sacred trust. You are trusted by God with something important – truth. Don’t treat that trust carelessly through lies and misrepresentation. I’m reminded of the Old Testament story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 6 describes how one unfortunate man was killed as a result of moving the Ark improperly. 2 Samuel 6:6-7, “When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon. Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen had stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” Again, just like the account of Ananias and Sapphira, we might be tempted to think that God was too severe on this man for committing such a minor crime. But we need to remember that God is trying to make a strong point so that we and others might learn a strong lesson: don’t get too casual in obeying the truth from God. In respect to moving the ark, God had already given instructions how to do it – by long poles with priests carryinig it by hand – not by an ox cart. David, and the men including Uzzah, had ignored God’s clear instructions and took it upon themselves to do it their own way. Uzzah paid the price. It’s the same with Ananias and Sapphira. They lied to the church – which is the Body of Christ – and it was counted as a direct lie against God himself. The Body of Christ, the Christian church, isn’t just a human organization. Remember what Jesus said to the unconverted Saul of Tarsus who was persecuting the church? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Acts 9:5-6. Saul was persecuting the church but Jesus counted it as a personal attack against himself. So too, we see Ananias and Sapphira lying to the church, but God seeing it as a lie against himself, because the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the embodiment on earth of the presence of God himself. This is just another strong reminder that we must keep the church perfectly truthful and honest. We must never, ever let the church fall into the same low standards as the world tolerates for itself. God’s truth must never be mixed with the lies of the world. We must never permit the church to teach or represent itself in a false way. We must hold each other to strict standards of honesty and truthfulness. There must be no lies coming from the church or its members. If we sin, we must be quick to admit and confess and repent of sin. There must never tolerate cover-ups or secret dealings or misrepresentation. We must work hard to keep the church a place where absolute truth from God is found, where we can all feel safe and secure in that truth.


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