Thou Shalt Not Be Like Ananias and Sapphira

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 13, 2016

Exodus 20:16, Acts4:32-5:11 The Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Not be like Ananias and Sapphira

Positive Church Headlines?
Would you want to be a part of a church where this sort of thing could happen?

First Community Church of Capital City started a new program of support for the poor and down on their luck. It was a great program, and really made a difference in people's lives, while at the same time raising the profile of the church in the community. Initial giving to the program was generous and strong.

But then, times changed, and Capital City's economy headed south. Giving slowed, and it looked like the church's support program would have to be put on the shelf. The disappointment in the church was great.

But then, Mr. and Mrs. Jones stepped forward. They had some property on the edge of town they had been thinking about selling. They declared that they wanted to sell the land and give the entire sale amount to the church's support program. Shortly thereafter, they arrived at church with a million dollar check. The church was ecstatic, the program was saved, and Mr. and Mrs. Jones were heroes.

In the weeks that followed, they told anybody who would listen that they were only sorry they couldn't do more, but the economy was suppressed and $1 million was all the land would fetch. They insisted that they had given all they had received.

But as time went by, rumors began to circulate that the Joneses had received considerably more for the land than they had said. Some research was done, and it was discovered that a real estate developer had wanted the property for a new housing addition, and had paid top dollar for it. The actual sale price had been closer to $3.5 million, and not $1 million as the Joneses had said.

The church leaders were confounded. They called Mr. Jones in for a meeting. "Why?" the pastor asked. "Why did you lie to us? It was your land, your money. You were free to do what you wanted with it, so why this charade? Why lie to us? Why lie to God?"

And as he spoke, Mr. Jones suddenly fell over, and died.

A few hours later, Mrs. Jones arrived. The pastor asked just one question: "Did you and Mr. Jones receive $1 million for your land?" "Yes" she said, "that was the price."
And then, she too fell over dead.

How would you react if that happened at our church?

Is that the sort of church to which you would want to belong?

And yet, that sort of thing happened in the early church. Instead of Mr. and Mrs. Jones, it happened to a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. But it happened pretty much as I said.

The 9th Commandment
We are continuing our series looking at the 10 commandments. And today we come to commandment number 9. Exodus 20:16:

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

This commandment pre-supposes a legal setting. Your neighbor is on trial for something you know—for a fact—he did not do. And you’ve been called as a witness. But the thing is: you don’t like your neighbor all that much. And so, you have an opportunity: if you misrepresent the facts, your neighbor will be convicted, and you’ll be rid of him. So what do you do? Do you give false testimony?

If you choose to lie in this situation, the consequences could be dire for your neighbor. So God says: “Don’t do it. Do not misrepresent the facts. Do not falsely accuse. Do not lie.”

God chooses one of the worst kinds of lies you could tell and puts it in His top ten list. And, as we’ve been seeing, by putting the worst sin in a category into the 10 commandments, God is ruling all other sins in that category out as well. So “Do not murder” rules out malice and violence and hatred as well. “Do not commit adultery” forbids all forms of sexual sin.
And in this case: “Do not bear false witness” means do not lie. Any form of falsehood: slander, exaggeration, covering up facts, deception, misrepresentation of any kind, flattery, gossip, and so on; all are forbidden by the ninth commandment.

Now, what I have been doing in this series is naming the commandment, talking about what it forbids, asking why that’s a big deal, and then suggesting what we should do instead. But, as it turns out, back in January we did a series called “Taming the Tongue” that included a sermon on lying. And in that sermon, I explained what lying is, who lying hurts, and suggested some ways we can love the truth. I went back and read that sermon this week, and it’s pretty good. If you are interested, you can find it on our website. It was January 31, the series was called “Taming the Tongue” and the message was called “A Lying Tongue.”

I don’t really want to repeat all of that. So instead, I got to thinking about what is probably the most notorious story of lying in the Bible. The story I told you at the beginning. The story of Ananias and Sapphira.

What I’d like to do today is read that story from Acts—so that you can see that I didn’t make it up—and then see if we can make sense of it. In the process, we’ll see how serious lying can be, and we’ll learn something about God as well. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is told in Acts 4 starting at verse 32, and going through chapter 5, verse 11:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3 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? 4 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 just to human beings but to God.”

5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

This is a strange little story. But there it is, right in our Bibles. And it centers on a lie. We’re going to learn about more than dishonesty in this story, but that’s where we start. So, I have four things for us to look at.

Christianity Means Sharing
First, I want to talk about the context of the lie. In order to understand what is happening in this story, we need to understand the conditions in which it happened. That’s why I started in chapter 4, verses 32-35:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

I alluded to this a couple of weeks ago in the sermon on stealing. In the early church, it was common for believers to hold their property in common. “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all” that they were pooling their resources and taking care of one another. Look at the way the good news changed their behavior:
• "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own."
• "They shared everything they had."
• "There were no needy persons among them."
• "From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them...and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."
Four different expressions of incredible sharing, which the entire church participated in (remember, they were "one in heart and mind"), and which resulted in an absence of poverty for all involved.

This is the outwork of God's grace in a person's life. When you come to realize what an incredible, free gift God has given to you in the forgiveness of sins and adoption into His family, the only natural response is to be gracious towards others. Christians should be free with their possessions, but firm in their care for one another.

One man, in particular, stood out for his generosity. Verses 36-37:

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Barnabas is going to appear several more times in the book of Acts, and each time he is going to live up to his nickname. He apparently owned a particularly valuable piece of property and gave it all up at considerable personal expense to himself. Perhaps his gift came at a time of significant need for the church. At any rate, it earned him the nickname: "Son of Encouragement" and a great deal of respect within the church.

This was the context of the lie that Ananias and Sapphira would tell. They were surrounded by people whose hearts were so taken with Jesus that they freely gave all that they had to one another.

It was, if you will, the thing to do.

Lying is Serious Business
Which brings us to the second thing to look at, which is the content of the lie.

This description of the early church's sharing isn't just there to teach us to be generous, it is also given by Dr. Luke to offset and explain the story that follows. With the picture of Barnabas firmly in our minds, we learn about Ananias and Sapphira. Verses 1-2:

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Ananias and Sapphira saw what happened when Barnabas sold his land, and they decided to do the same. Who can say exactly what motivated them? Maybe, at first, they really wanted to help the church. Maybe they were jealous of Barnabas, and hoped they would receive equal attention from the Apostles. Maybe they just wanted to feel important.

Whatever their motivation, after they sold their land, they brought only part of the proceeds to the church. BUT! They presented themselves as though they were doing the exact same thing as Barnabas and giving it all.

That is important here. In order to understand everything that follows, we need to see their sin for what it was.

Their mistake was NOT that they kept part of the money for themselves. I can't stress this enough. There was no expectation that every member of the church would turn over all their property to the control of the church. This was not mandatory communism. There was no one monitoring the books to make sure everybody gave as much as they could, or a certain percentage, or anything like that. As I said in the sermon on stealing, the Bible respects private property rights. It calls us to be generous, but it does not compel our generosity.
I know this because of what Peter says in verse 4. He says

4 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?

The land belonged to Ananias and Sapphira. The money was theirs to dispose of as they saw fit. Nobody was forcing the Believers to give anything. That's what makes the giving of Barnabas and the others described in verse 35 so tremendous--they were giving from the heart.

If Ananias and Sapphira had come to the apostles and said, "We sold some land and we'd like to give one tenth (or one half, or three quarters, or whatever) to the church," it would have been taken in gladly, and they would have been praised. If Mr. and Mrs. Jones had just said, "We want to give $1 million," nobody would have complained a bit.

But that's not what happened. Instead, Ananias and Sapphira made a great show of giving ALL the money, even though they were secretly keeping some of it back. They wanted to call attention to themselves, they wanted to appear generous, but at the same time they wanted the security of money in the bank. So the fibbed. They made a show of spiritual pretense. They lied.

That's what Peter says they did wrong. In verse 3 he says,

"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?"

And again, at the end of verse 4:

You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

In other words, this is about the 9th commandment. They bore false witness. They lied. And lying is serious business.

This seems like such an innocent sin. After all, the church still got a generous offering. Ananias and Sapphira still made a significant sacrifice. Nobody really got hurt...

Or did they? Ananias and Sapphira were hurting the church, and they were hurting themselves.

They were hurting the church because they were contributing to an attitude of church going that said outward appearances are more important than inner conviction. Left unchecked, they would have helped to create a version of Christianity that was entirely about a person’s ability to conform to certain behaviors. They were trying to make themselves bigger than they were, and in the process they were making God smaller than He is.

Peter makes special note of the fact that Ananias lied to God. There is something especially unseemly about spiritual deception. Passing oneself off as more pious and dedicated than is really the truth. Using the church or the name of Jesus to somehow burnish people’s opinions of you. This is why James warns that teachers will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1) When you lie in the arena of religion, you are lying to God.

And so, Ananias and Sapphira were contributing to the deterioration of their own souls. C.S. Lewis wrote:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war with and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. (Mere Christianity, quoted by Boice, 100).

That's a big thought, but let me emphasize the main idea: every time we make a choice--whether to be honest or to lie--we are moving either closer to God or away from Him. As Lewis says, we are either "heavenly" or "hellish." And each time we deceive--whether it is from exaggeration, or carelessness, or downright dishonesty--we are making it easier and easier on ourselves to do it again, and again.

That's why it is so important in parenting to have our children tell the truth in everything. Whether it it's about something big--like, "Did you hit your brother?"--or something seemingly innocuous--like, "Did you finish your milk?"--we want them to make a habit of telling the truth. Not because we are afraid God might strike them dead as he did to Ananias and Sapphira, but because we know every untruth is a tarnish on their souls that will make the next lie even easier to tell.

And the same is true in our lives. The challenge for us is to examine our lives for deceit. Are we making ourselves appear to be bigger than we are? Do we put on a show for the benefit of others? For ourselves? Are we sloppy with our facts? Are we in a pattern of untruth?

When we lie, we hurt those we are lying to, and we hurt ourselves.

God is Holy
Which leads to the third thing we need to look at: the consequences of the lie. This lie cost Ananias and Sapphira a great deal. It cost them their lives.

I think anytime we read this story, the question that is sure to leap to mind is: Why did God judge Ananias and Sapphira so harshly? Why did they die on the spot--with no opportunity to repent--when other people (including myself) get away with much worse sins on a daily basis?

It's a tough question, and one we can't completely answer, since we don't know the mind of God.

But most commentators agree that this incident occurred at a pivotal time for the church. The church was still in its formative years, and it was developing the pattern which would lead to success or failure for its mission. What it could not afford, then, was to get off track.

If Ananias and Sapphira had gotten away with their deception, they might have contributed to a weakening of the church. Being a Christian might have become more about appearances than what is in the heart. Church membership would have become more about performance than faith. People might have started to take God less seriously.

So Ananias and Sapphira died as a warning: God is holy, fear the consequences of sin.

God is holy. That means that He cannot abide the presence of sin. He is a consuming fire, and we are very combustible. Our sins must be punished, or He would not be God.

The Old Testament stories of God's holiness are abundant. Moses had to take off his shoes in front of the burning bush. Moses could not see God face to face, or he would be consumed. Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire at the alter of God, and they were struck dead. Uzzah reached out to touch the ark with his bare hand, and he was killed.

God cannot abide the presence of sin.

I think Peter's question for Sapphira in verse 9 is very telling:

“How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?

Ananias and Sapphira tested the Lord.

Maybe they thought God was some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who winked at human indiscretion. Maybe they thought those stories about God's holiness were just made up--sort of the way parents might make up a bogey man to keep their children in line. Maybe they thought God wasn't paying attention.

So they tested Him. And they paid.

The result, according to verse 11, was that

11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

I’d imagine so. The consequences of sin are great. Don't trifle with God.

It may not seem like a great way to win converts to the fellowship, but it is reality. God is holy. He does not abide sin. And the consequences of sin are very, very dire.

I asked earlier if you would want to be a part of a church where this sort of thing could happen. The truth is, you are. The God we worship and serve is the same God who struck Ananias and Sapphira dead. I don't know why they got singled out. But I do know it could happen to any one of us.
Any. One. Of. Us.

He is a holy God. We should fear the consequences of sin.

God is Patient
But, of course, this shouldn't sound like a threat--watch out or God will strike you with lightning—because, we all know, that just doesn't happen.

Given the picture we have of God as holy, though, maybe we should ask: "Why doesn't it?”

This takes us to the fourth thing we need to look at, which I call the conundrum of the lie.

Because I think when we read this story, we tend to ask the wrong question. We look at this story and we think: "What an aberration." God isn't supposed to act this way. He hardly even gives them a chance, and it seems so...so... trivial. Isn't He overreacting just a bit?

But then we get a Biblical picture of God's holiness. We realize just how heinous sin is to Him. We realize there are no trivial sins with God. And then we realize that the aberration is that this doesn't happen more often.

The aberration is that this doesn't happen to me.

I'm sinful. My heart is dreadfully deceitful. I'm full of pretense and pretending. I cling far too tightly to things that I should be free and generous with. God knows, I'm as bad as Ananias and Sapphira, worse even. I deserve what they got.

And so, the conundrum is not: Why did God drop Ananias and Sapphira? The conundrum is: Why doesn't He do it to me?

And the answer is: God is patient. God is full of grace.

It's the only conclusion we can draw. It's the only explanation.

And so, even in this sad story of immediate judgment, the gospel shines through. Ananias and Sapphira were a warning. They caught the full brunt of God's holiness. Their experience shows
how frightful that can be. But God is holding back. He isn't eradicating all sin, and all sinners. Not yet.

He is patiently waiting. Calling sinners to repent and turn to Him. He is pouring out grace. Sending Jesus to bear the punishment we deserve.

And He's calling us to fall on that grace. He's calling us to trust in Him before that patience runs out. 2 Peter 3:9 says:

9 …He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the very next verse reminds us, that patience will not last forever:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

God is full of grace. The same grace that prompted the believers to share so freely at the beginning of the passage is available to us, to keep us from the frightful end we deserve. And we need to claim that grace. We need to fall on it. We need to let it change our lives.

One of the functions of the law is to serve as a mirror. When we hold it up in front of our lives, we see the flaws and imperfections in us. And that’s the function of this story in Acts as well. If Ananias and Sapphira could suffer so terribly for the deception they practiced, then we are all in trouble. God hates a lying tongue. (Proverbs 6:16-17)

But the good news is that God is full of grace. And He gives us the law to reveal to us our need for a Savior. He Himself provides that Savior. And so we need to turn to Him.

And so, from this strange story about a lie we get 3 challenges, and one very important reminder. Challenge #1: Be free with your possessions and firm in your care for people. Challenge #2: Practice a habit of truth. Challenge #3: Fear the consequences of sin.

And finally, the reminder: God is full of grace. Trust in Him.