We need to keep in mind what God is doing in the book of Acts. We are seeing the Mission of God carried out through the disciples. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he commissioned his followers to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
After receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter boldly proclaims the gospel before a great crowd. The church grows and a community that has been transformed by the gospel begins to develop (Acts 2:42-47). Peter again finds himself preaching before a crowd after they healed a man paralyzed from birth (Acts 3).
Then, in Acts 4, we came to the first act of persecution upon this new community. Peter and John are thrown in prison overnight, and then testify before the Sanhedrin. After being forbidden to preach the resurrection of Jesus, they gather in prayer for boldness to defy the Sanhedrin in obedience to God’s mission.
This morning we will see that the dangers this community faced were not only from the outside, but they faced the danger of hypocrisy within.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write, “Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship.” Christianity is meant to meet each one of these interrelated needs. A community that desires true unity must alleviate poverty of every kind: spiritual, personal, community, and stewardship. The last two are on display in this passage.
Satan has attacked the community through physical persecution (Acts 4:1-22). Later on, we will see Satan attacking the community through professional distraction (Acts 6:1-7). Here we see him attacking the church from within, through moral corruption (Acts 5:1-11).
The desire for peace and unity is universal. The solution is what varies. Some try to achieve peace through the elimination of enemies. Some try to achieve peace by treaty, converting their enemies into their friends. But what if the enemy is inside the community? Or worse, what if you are the enemy?
One aspect of the mission of God is to build peace through compassionate and generous hearts transformed by the gospel.
First, we will see How to Build Unity (4:32-37). Second, we will consider How to Destroy Unity (5:1-11).
How to Build Unity (4:32-37)
Believers had just been filled with the Holy Spirit in order to preach boldly (v.31). That same Spirit is certainly at work bringing unity among people who are drastically different from one another.
Unity is expressed in this passage through a the recognition that possessions are not ultimate. They considered their belongings to belong to everyone. They “had everything in common” (v.32; cf. 2:44). Later on we will see that this makes it easy to be generous. They didn’t say what parents have heard countless times, “That’s mine! You can’t have it!”
Why were they so selfless? In verse 33 we see that they were the recipients of powerful apostolic preaching. God has continued to answer the apostles’ prayer for boldness to proclaim what the Sanhedrin had forbidden. And the community receives the Word as a means of “great grace”.
The primary method this passage reveals of achieving unity is to alleviate poverty. It’s pretty simple really: wealthy people are needed. Unity is strengthened when wealthy people increase their generosity.
The generosity of Barnabas is considered a great encouragement to the apostles. We will see Barnabas later on as one who lives up to his reputation. Levites were not given any land (Num. 18:21-24). Possibly returning to the Lord what his forefathers had no authority to take. However, having been born in Cyprus, his family would have been victims of the dispersion of Jews exiled by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Also, there are other examples of Levites owning land (i.e., Jeremiah 32:6-15 and Josephus).
Radical giving characterized this community. This apostolic distribution eventually becomes problematic suggesting an increasing number of occurrences even if the examples of Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira are exceptional rather than normative.
Those with plenty provided for those in need. We see the varied economic classes of the community. The rich and the impoverished were represented. Remember who these followers were. Jerusalem was not a place where very many wealthy people lived. And this community might have faired worse than the average person who lived there. There were fisherman from Galilee. There were older Jews and widows who had returned from the diaspora and were living in destitution. The growing persecution might have made employers timid to hire Christians.
In light of that, it would have been a powerful testimony that there was not a needy person among them. Their love for one another was very attractive to the outsider.
This mutual compassion was only possible because of the Holy Spirit. Human societies that have tried to enforce this kind of wealth distribution have always failed. People cannot be forced to love their neighbor—sin and deception will prevail in a community that has not been transformed by the economics of the gospel. As we will soon see, the best deeds of an untransformed person will only bring greater judgment upon himself.
But, of course, even if you have wealthy people like Barnabas who are willing to give, you also have to have needy people who are willing to receive.
Charles Williams, a member of the famous Inklings writing group that included J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, wrote an excellent novel titled Descent Into Hell. It sounds like a campy horror flick, but it is really a figurative treatment of the contrasts between love and fear, community and isolation.
In an important section the character Stanhope explains to Pauline that she must allow him to bear her fears and burdens. She wonders how that is even possible for her and how it won’t be detrimental to him. Stanhope responds,
“If you want to disobey and refuse the laws that are common to us all, if you want to live in pride and division and anger, you can. But if you will be part of the best of us, and live and laugh and be ashamed with us, then you must be content to be helped. You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden. I haven’t made the universe and it isn’t my fault. But I’m sure that this is a law of the universe, and not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.”
One key insight to helping others is a recognition of your own need to receive their help. In other words, all of us are needy in certain ways. But the reverse is also true, all of us are wealthy in certain ways. We all have something to offer. Problems and division arise when we covet what we do not have rather than offering to others what we do have.
We don’t just have a problem admitting our own need, but we are constantly trying to justify ourselves. We try to become our own savior.
That is why we must consider the enemy’s strategy…
How to Destroy Unity (5:1-11)
“But” sets up the contrast with Barnabas.
One of the enemies of unity is theft. The Greek word translated “kept back” means to embezzle or misappropriate. It is translated “pilfering” in its only other occurrence in Titus 2:10. So Ananias and Sapphira had apparently made a deal with the apostles to do what Barnabas did. By all outward appearances they did the same thing. But within their home, they contrived a plan to keep some for themselves. They desired the reputation of Barnabas without the sacrifice made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Sin of Achan—“keeping for himself” (Josh. 7:1 and Acts 5:2) what God had claimed brought him death in a dramatic fashion. Achan was guilty of lying to God (Josh. 7:11 and Acts 5:4). F.F. Bruce, “The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua. In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of the people of God.”1
Peter’s questioning of Ananias reveals this to be another attack from Satan (v.3). The sin was not the lack of generosity, he was never required to give the proceeds to the apostles (v.4). His sin was lying to the Holy Spirit.
Did you notice how he lied to the Holy Spirit (v.3) and now we read that he lied to God (v.4). Derek Thomas points out, “For Peter, a Jew by birth and upbringing, to assert ‘God is one’ (Deut. 6:4) was part of his daily confession; to assert that there is more than one who is (the one) God was a step of unimaginable magnitude.”2
The word for “contrived” (5:4) is the same word that we have seen throughout for “laid.” Such frequent use often betrays its importance. This lie was contrived in his heart as the proceeds were laid at the foot of the apostles. A word used to express generosity has been used to express hypocrisy. It reveals the spiritual distance that stood between the genuine disciples and Ananias and Sapphira. They were not of “one heart” with the believers (4:32). They appear to have been of their father, the devil (5:3; cf. John 8:41-44). And after their judgment, even those outside the church understood the gravity of the situation (5:5, 11).
Is God capricious? Where is his love? Did Ananias and Sapphira really go to hell for lying? Was it all so wrong that it deserved such harsh punishment? People say the same about Adam and Eve, Lot’s wife, King Saul, etc. God takes sin seriously. He hates hypocrisy. The ninth commandment—“You shall not lie”—is not to be taken lightly.
Maybe Ananias and Sapphira thought God would automatically forgive them. Maybe they though they would have plenty of time to repent. Either way, they made light of their sin, suppressing their guilty consciences, and deserved punishment. In case you were wondering, it’s passages like this that remind us that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament. God’s love is not incompatible with his wrath.
The enemy emphasizes secrecy and isolation. And when we listen to his voice we allow misplaced fear to replace faith. Another important word in this section is “fear”.
Fear is an admission of vulnerability. They feared because they too experienced a sense of guilt. Some of the people probably feared that their sin would be handled in a similar fashion. Could their hearts be equally deceived? The problem isn’t that we fear, but who we fear.
Ananias and Sapphira feared the loss of financial security. They feared having the reputation of being lovers of money rather than generous. Dennis Johnson writes, “What they lacked was the one fear they needed: fear of the Spirit of God, who searches hearts.”3
But, is it right to be afraid of God? John Murray answers, “It is the essence of impiety not to be afraid of God when their is reason to be afraid.”4 It is entirely proper, and a sign of maturity, to fear sinning against a holy God. That is what we read later on in Acts, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
Unity is fueled by generosity and destroyed by deceit. So how do we encourage generosity and develop a healthy fear of God? It begins with an acknowledgement of our need. We are all sinners by virtue of our birth. We enter life as fighters, not peacemakers. And we choose to do things that work against the very unity we seek.
Because we have been created by a righteous God—One who is perfectly holy and just—we can expect punishment. The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 3:23). We experience a spiritual death that separates us from God. We experience a physical death evidenced by the aging process. And we face an eternal death. The death of Ananias and Sapphira foreshadow this physical, spiritual, and eternal judgment.
Unity is so elusive because we cannot achieve it in our own strength. As hard as we try to avoid conflict and force ourselves to be generous, we find sin still resides in our heart.
It seems hopeless because it is!
But the good news of the gospel is that God the Father sent God the Son to be the substitute for sinners. By giving up the riches of His glory in heaven, Jesus became fully human accomplishing the rescue plan we so desperately needed. And God the Spirit applies that knowledge to our hearts.
Jesus Christ defeated the enemy of unity by giving up all of his wealth. He gave up the security he had always enjoyed in order to secure our eternal unity with him. He did this by giving up his life—dying on the cross—and cutting himself off from the source of unity, in order to grant us the unity we have always longed for. And when he rose again on the third day, Christ defeated our greatest enemy—death itself.
Because of what Christ has won through his death and resurrection, we have the opportunity to trust him and fear him by placing our faith in him. We can repent, turning away from our sin and turning to Christ. Will you do so?
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy is talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan (the Christ figure). Lucy asks, “Is Aslan safe?” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”5
When we know the great power and authority of The King, we might initially come trembling into his presence. But when we know him as Our King, we realize that he wields his power for our defense. It is only in the safety of that security, that we are enabled to be generous. Because our eternal unity has been secured, we can sacrificially give for the sake of temporal unity.
1 F.F. Bruce, Acts, 110.
2 Derek Thomas, Acts, 124.
3 Dennis Johnson, Acts, 51.
4 As quoted in Thomas, Acts, 127.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe