Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is the tenth in my series on the Book of Acts.
“A Deadly Conspiracy”
July 8, 2007
Note the honesty of the Bible, and of Luke as a historian. Surely, if the Bible were a book that was merely a propaganda piece, wanting only to “put the best foot forward”, aiming to impress people, this incident would have been covered up/swept under the rug, wouldn’t it? It paints an unflattering picture of two members of the early church—and by the way, I don’t at all presume to judge that these people were not followers of Christ. Misinterpreted, it could be seen as painting a vindictive picture of Peter, the leader of the early church, and even of God as being some kind of capricious, vindictive deity Who derives special pleasure from “zapping” people who step out of line. I mean, this whole sordid affair doesn’t exactly cast this whole Christian enterprise in the best light, does it? Well, I suppose that depends…
Incredible generosity marked the early church, as did incredible sincerity. Sure, people were/are people, and all of us have feet of clay, but there existed a sincere desire to help people, their fellow believers, so much so that there were many, with Barnabas used as an example, who sold their belongings in order to give to the church in order to provide for the needs of others within the congregation. The effect of this sincere generosity was that “there was not a needy person among them.” No one in the congregation—and by this time, the congregation was quite large, a megachurch by any standards—no one went hungry or without the basic necessities of life. This is the context of this passage, and we find it in the latter portion of Acts 4. Note first
I. Sinful Deception - :1-2
What we had here was a conspiracy. Ananias and Sapphira aspired to receive the type of acclaim that they thought Barnabas had, but without the same level of sacrifice. To all appearances, these two had done exactly the same thing that Barnabas had—to all appearances, that is. Having a piece of land at their disposal, they sold the land and gave to the church via the apostles. And let’s be realistic: they must have given a reasonably good percentage, right? If I sold my house, and gave 10% of the money to Chris and said, “here, I sold my house, and I give it all to you to use for people in the church”, and it was only $17 or $18K—which would be in the ballpark of 10% for our house—I think he’d be on to me fast, so quickly that I wouldn’t even dream of trying it, right? They probably gave a significant percentage of what they realized, probably over 50%, maybe well over 50%! Pretty generous, huh? And they get struck dead for it?
But the key to understanding this story is that they kept back a portion of the proceeds, but lied in stating that they’d given everything. :2 – “Kept back” (nosphizo) is a word used for “embezzle”—they “embezzled” their own money, in other words, in the sense that their keeping back a portion of the proceeds deceptively constituted lying to—and stealing from—God. Perhaps they’d entered into some kind of agreement with the church beforehand to sell the property and give the money to the apostles for the church’s use; perhaps they’d only agreed between themselves, in which case their agreement was to deceive for the purpose of looking good in the eyes of others. “Their motive in giving”, says John Stott, “was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.” Kent Hughes called their actions, “pious pretense, religious sham, simulated holiness, Christian fraud.”
Aspiring to be held in high esteem in the eyes of others is a temptation that continues to plague us today, doesn’t it? Ajith Fernando points out that “in Christianity, all power comes through grace…the one thing that can hinder grace is pride. If we try to put on a show of being what we are not, we destroy our chances for growth by blocking the grace of God.”
Jesus said, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Ananias and Sapphira were concerned to do just the opposite: achieve a high but false reputation in the eyes of others.