Confession time, some of you might remember parts of this blog from a talk I did in Ignite a few years ago, actually I think you can find the recording of that talk here too if you’d rather listen than read! Anyway, due to time pressures I have not been able to dig up new ground beyond the pale so what follows is a look at a Acts 4:32-5:11. It would be useful for you to have a quick read before read further down – click the link there. Go on.
Firstly, it can be useful to remember that Acts is not a daily account of the church. It is not a dear diary account of the church. It is a collection of stories of this first unique Christian community that took place over a period of something like 30 years.
So, in reality, not everyday was as crazy as what we read throughout the book. However, this knowledge just bring up another question. Luke has selected and picked out what to include, so why has he chosen this story?
I mean has nobody told Luke that he is writing a book for the New Testament?
I don’t know if Luke had like an editor or a proof reader.
If he did you may be forgiven for think they would have circled this story in Acts 5 and written Old Testament across it.
Can we just keep writing about grace and healings and stuff for a bit?
I don’t think we need to be telling people about God judging people and killing them on spot!
He’s not even judging the pagans outside the church! He’s judging and killing people who go to church regularly and give money to church. That’s not going to encourage anyone to join us! Janey Mac, you’re killing us here Luke!
The thing is Luke knows something that a lot of people today question.
Luke knows that the God of the Old Testament is exactly the same God in the new testament and exactly the same God today.
How does he know this? Well… God tells all of us in the book of Malachi.
‘I am the Lord, I do not change’
Does God show his holiness and judgement in the Old Testament? Yes
Does God show his mercy and grace in the New Testament? Yes
Does God show his holiness and judgement in the New Testament? Yes
Does God show his mercy and grace in the Old Testament? Yes
We have this ridiculous notion that the Old Testament heroes of faith all made it to God? Good people who were so great that God used them. They weren’t. They were murders, liars, thieves and cheaters. Yet…God’s mercy and grace was so great that he used them.
We need to move past the simple categories of Old Testament God bad, New Testament God good. The Bible is much more complex, because life is much more complex.
‘I am the Lord, I do not change’
Let’s back pedal a bit.
So we have this story of Ananias and Sapphira. We haven’t meet them before this and they won’t be around for long. But there is a very important reason why we have included the end of chapter 4 with this story. Because out of context, this story is just completely nuts. But in context, this story is just slightly nuts.
So end of chapter 4 we meet Joseph, who the gang are now calling Barnabas. We will meet Barnabas again quite a few times throughout Acts. Barnabas as you will read there in verse 36 means son of encouragement. Clearly Barnabas is well received. He has sold a field that he owned and given all the money to the community. That’s encouraging. Note, it doesn’t say he sold his only field, or all his possessions but, nevertheless, he has made a significant personal sacrifice for the community. And people like him. Well done Barnabas!
Now, Barnabas isn’t the only one sharing what they have. In verse 32 of chapter 4 we read that everyone shared everything. In fact, we read no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own. Nice. Why are people doing this? Middle of verse 33.
And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy persons among them.
Why are people doing this?
God’s grace working in them.
Grace has implications. Grace leads you somewhere. Grace creates a human connection and community, one grounded in real needs being met by real people in real ways.
It’s the knowledge of, understanding of, feeling of, God’s grace that has driven this community to sharing everything with each other. I think we wouldn’t be far wrong to assume the same goes for Barnabas.
Right at the start of chapter 5, Luke gives us a huge clue that these stories are connected. The last thing he talks about in chapter 4 is Barnabas and his gift of money and suddenly he brings in Ananias and Sapphira.
They are part of this community too.
They are doing something very similar to Barnabas. They are selling some property and giving money to the apostles.
There is, though, a chasm between the attitude of Barnabas and the attitude of Ananias and Sapphira.
It’s not about the money. Nowhere in this passage do we see even the slightest shred of greed on the part of the church leaders. The problem is the dishonesty.
They pretended they were giving it all so that they would look better. Maybe people would view them like Barnabas. They didn’t want to make the sacrifice, they just wanted the esteem. The Ironic thing is Barnabas probably didn’t want the esteem, just wanted to make the sacrifice because of God’s grace. Ananias and Sapphira were hypocritically pretending to do good while committing a very selfish act
And as we find out nothing will kill the life of a community faster than pretending. Which brings us to the difficult issue of God striking people dead.
First thing I just want to throw out there is that the text itself never says God killed them. It just says they died, albeit immediately after Peter spoke to them. Does this mean that God didn’t kill them? Maybe it’s all just a coincidence, just good timing…or bad timing.
However, Luke who is writing all this down, is a doctor by trade. Surely if anyone would have had the interest and ability to ascertain what had happened it would have been Doctor Luke. But he doesn’t make an attempt to explain it. He might not openly say God struck them down but he certainly is heavily implying it.
Whatever the cause, the important thing is that the church saw it as God’s judgement on the couple.
So if God killed them, then why did he kill Ananias and Sapphira?
We’ve already said it wasn’t about money.
Its cause they lied, right? Am I right? Peter even says they lied to the Holy Spirit.
I’m going to be honest. This whole thing makes me a bit uncomfortable.
It all seems a bit harsh. Firstly, Do Ananias and Sapphira get killed because they lied.
Other people have lied! Adam, Eve, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, David. Loads of people have lied.
And get this the person you voices the judgement on them is Peter.
Peter! This is the guy who when things got tough and Jesus was heading for the cross repeatedly told people that he didn’t know Jesus, even though he did know Jesus. This is that guy.
Loads of people have lied.
This whole thing makes me a bit uncomfortable.
Because I look at my own life and think if he’s going to kill them for that. Then why am I still breathing?
But maybe from a different point of view I could see the abundance of grace, mercy and love shown to all those you have lied and continue to lie to the Holy Spirit and the church and who have been forgiven time and time again.
Why were Ananias and Sapphira killed here? Honestly, at this point in time, any answer I give you is a guess. I also think it would be a disservice to this story to try and narrow it down to a list of things to avoid.
At the start I questioned why Luke would record such a story and include it in his book?
I believe that is a question I can answer. I believe that is answer that is useful to us too.
I actually think it’s quite clear because Luke tells us twice. I think his purpose in writing and including this story has to do with our attitude towards God.
And in particular our fear of God or, to use an Old Testament term, the fear of the Lord.
When we go to the Old Testament, where the term ‘the fear of the Lord’ is pretty common, we come upon some very puzzling pictures of what this fear is like.
Things like the more forgiveness and grace you know the more you fear the Lord. We are also told fearing the lord will bring joy and that we can learn to and grow in the fear of the Lord. How can this be?
To fear the Lord is to be overwhelmed with wonder before the greatness of God and his love.
It is to be awestruck at the beauty and life that he has created.
It is to respect how right he always is and know how wrong we can often be.
Fearing him means he don’t ignore his voice.
Fearing him means we don’t ignore his commands because we recognise how holy and right he is and how selfish and wrong we can be.
Fearing him means we don’t ignore what Jesus has done and the consequences that it has for our lives.
Fearing him means bowing before him out of amazement at his glory and beauty.
And that is why the more we experience God’s grace and forgiveness, the more we experience a trembling awe and wonder before the greatness of all that he is and has done for us.
The book of proverbs tells us repeatedly that the fear of the Lord is beginning of all wisdom.
And so the last verse of this story seems quite significant.
‘Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events’
Great fear seized the whole church.
This is the very first time the word church is used in Acts.
And as the church begins I believe Luke is writing to us to remind us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.