(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #9)
I don’t care how smoothly a church is humming along, it isn’t immune from scandal. The problem is that people can’t help but be people. They are sin-marred individuals who are card-carrying members of a sin-married race. Sin is in our d.n.a. It’s who we are. We are sinners by birth and by choice. Our fault line goes all the way back to the garden of Eden.
You might be saying, “But what about God the Holy Spirit dwelling inside Christians? Doesn’t He help us with our sin problem?” Yes, He does, but His help is tempered. His presence inside our bodies doesn’t vaporize our inborn nature of sin. Instead, His presence creates a civil war inside us. On the one hand, we feel the Adamic nature’s pull toward sin. On the other hand, we feel the indwelling Spirit’s pull toward godliness.
Back and forth the tug of war goes. Sometimes we allow the indwelling Spirit’s pull to win the moment. Other times we allow the Adamic nature’s pull to win it. Sometimes we act in a godly manner. Other times we act in an ungodly one. Sometime we choose God’s will. Other times we choose our own. I don’t think anybody ever described this inner civil war better than the apostle Paul, who was a pretty fair Christian himself. He wrote:
I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things. (Romans 7:15-17, N.L.T.)
This brings us to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple who were members in good standing of the church of Jerusalem. If they were wolves in sheep’s clothing, lost people masquerading as Christians, the Bible gives no indication of it. Still, though, even though they were born-again Christians who each were indwelt with God the Holy Spirit, they succumbed to the temptation to sin. And their sin created the first church scandal.
The problem centered around that unique financial setup that was one of the distinguishing marks of the early church in Jerusalem. All the church members sold their possessions and goods and contributed the proceeds to the church treasury so that the needs of each member could be met out of that communal fund (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Mind you that participating in this plan was voluntary. The apostles didn’t force the church members to do anything, and they didn’t excommunicate any member who wouldn’t go along with the plan.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land, and Ananias brought some of the proceeds and laid it at the feet of the apostles as a contribution to the church fund (Acts 5:1-2). Notice, however, that I said he brought some of the proceeds from the sale, not all of the proceeds from the sale. That was the problem.
But don’t get confused. It wasn’t sin for the couple to keep back part of the proceeds for themselves. Again, everything about the church receiving contributions was voluntary. So what was the couple’s sin? It was pretending (lying) that the money that Ananias brought to the apostles was all the proceeds from the sale. The transgression wasn’t money mismanagement; it was lying. It wasn’t a lack of giving; it was a lack of integrity.
Peter was the apostle who called out Ananias for the sin. Somehow, someway, Peter knew what Ananias had done. Maybe Peter had heard from someone just how much the couple had made from the sale. Or maybe the indwelling Holy Spirit imparted to Peter the spiritual discernment to know that Ananias was trying to pull something. Whatever the case was, as soon as Ananias laid the money at the feet of the apostles, Peter began his interrogation:
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4, N.K.J.V.)
If Ananias had answers to Peter’s questions, he never got to voice them. The very next verse says that when Ananias heard these things he dropped dead on the spot. His death was quickly followed by some men wrapping him up in a sheet or a blanket, carrying him out, and burying him. No funeral. No flowers. No visitation. Since his wife, Sapphira, wasn’t present at the time, she didn’t even know she was now a widow.
Three hours passed before she herself came to the apostles, and she still wasn’t aware of what had transpired. Peter, not knowing whether or not she was in cahoots with her husband concerning the sin, asked her, “Was this the price that you received for your land?” “Yes,” she said. That was all the evidence Peter needed to include her in the judgment. Acts 5:9-10 is quite graphic:
Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. (N.K.J.V.)
You talk about setting a tone for the Jerusalem church! You talk about raising the bar for standards! You talk about throwing a scare into all the members! It’s no wonder that Acts 5:11 says:
So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (N.K.J.V.)
Needless to say, down through church history God hasn’t enforced this same standard for Christian behavior in church. What if lying, scheming, pretending to be something you’re not, and trying to play big shot in church were still causes for immediate death in our congregations? If they were our church rolls would be a lot smaller and our church cemeteries would be a lot larger. You can bank on that.
In the end, what the story of Ananias and Sapphira shows us is that sin can arise even in the best of churches. Not every pastor who has an affair with the church secretary is lost. Not every deacon who gets caught for a d.u.i. is a charlatan. Not every church treasurer who steals from the church was always lurking in reeds, waiting for just the right chance to run off with the money. Not every youth minister whose addiction to pornography gets found out is a sham whose calling to the ministry is a farce. Sometimes genuine Christians seriously drop the ball and exhibit behavior that is shockingly worldly. That doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell inside them. It just means that He doesn’t win every battle of the civil war.