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To the Ends of the Earth (10): Field of Dreams

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jul 16, 2006

Acts 4:32-5:11

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The Lord's Day Evening

July 16, 2006

Acts 4:32-5:11

“To the End of the Earth (10): Field of Dreams”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

We’re looking at The Acts of the Apostles, and we come tonight to the section that begins in verse 32 of chapter 4, and we’ll be reading through into the fifth chapter and the narrative of Ananias and Sapphira.

This is God's holy, inerrant word. This is different from any other book. What we're about to read is the product of the out-breathing of God–that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, by the out-breathing of God, and is profitable for doctrine and reproof, and correction and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.” Let's give attention to the reading of God's word, but before we do so, let's ask God for help. Let's pray.

Father, once again we turn to You. It is a confession of how weak we are. We are unable in and of ourselves to even understand or comprehend what it is that You are telling us in the Scriptures, so we ask for Your illumination. Come, Holy Spirit, open up Your word. Help us again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Speak to our hearts. Convict us of our sin. Draw us to Yourself. Woo us by the overtures of the gospel. Seal us by Your Spirit, and hear us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
“Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas, (which means Son of Encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
“But a man named Ananias, and his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge, he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.’ When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out, and buried him.
“After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?’ And she said, ‘Yes, for so much.’ But Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.”

Thus far God's holy and inerrant word.

There is in this passage these two sections, one at the close of chapter 4 and this section at the beginning of chapter 5. They belong, of course, intimately together, and Luke seems to want us to see a stark contrast. He tells us in verse 33 of chapter 4 that “great grace was upon them all.” Great grace was upon the church; and then, twice in chapter 5 (once in verse 5 and again in verse 11), great fear came upon the whole church–great grace, and great fear.

The context is a description that Luke gives us of the life of the church. He's given us little cameo glimpses of the church before. On the Day of Pentecost, for example...immediately after Pentecost we are told something very similar to what is being described here, namely that the disciples, the family of God, the church of God, felt such a bond and a closeness and a sense of responsibility, the one to the other, that they voluntarily gave up their rights and privileges to their own property in order to look after themselves and to take care of those who were in need.

Something similar is now being said now again here, at the close of chapter 4. Luke is describing, in fact, a three-fold blessing. He speaks of the unity of heart and soul, heart and mind. They are together. They see things and perceive things in a unified way. They have similar goals and similar aspirations. They identify themselves as the people of God, and they’re united. And great power comes upon their preaching and their evangelism, and their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of course is still only barely three, three and a half, four months at most in their recent past. Pentecost is barely two months in their recent past, and the whole phenomenon of the resurrection of Jesus–His coming to life again, having been dead for three days–is central to their preaching and teaching and evangelism. And great power comes upon them.

Now, you’ll remember from last week and the week before how Peter and John have spent a night in prison at the hands of the Sanhedrin in the temple, and they have been warned not to preach in the name of Jesus. And you remember they have come back after doing precisely that in the hearing of the Sanhedrin, and the Sanhedrin being afraid of the crowds in Jerusalem who are, at this point at least, somewhat sympathetic to these disciples. They let them go, and you remember what they do. They go to the house of a friend in Jerusalem, and they immediately turn to prayer. And what is it that they pray for? They pray for boldness to do the very thing that the Sanhedrin are telling them not to do, whatever the cost...and we will see the cost. In a few weeks time, we will see Peter and John in prison again. And that boldness for which they prayed has now descended upon them as a community. It's not just Peter who's bold; it's not just John who is bold; the whole community, the whole church is bold in their preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And then Luke draws attention to a third lesson: the sense of fellowship, the sense of commonality that they felt now spills over in practical concern for each other's welfare. It wasn't just a concern of their heads; it manifested itself in deeds. And they hold all things in common — their possessions, their lands, their property, their financial resources are held now in common, in order to meet the needs and exigencies that develop in this small fledgling, growing, Christian community.

All kinds of questions come to the surface as to what it is that Luke is describing here. Is it some kind of primitive social democracy? Is this Luke's way of describing what Stalin or Marx might have described as the power of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie? Movements have sprung up in church history — one thinks of the Moravians, for example, who adopted a very similar policy to this one. One thinks of the Amish community and their Anabaptist Mennonite roots in Europe — very similar lifestyle to what is being described here. Some scholars, as they read these passages in chapter 2 of Luke and here in chapter 4, are critical. They accuse Luke of re-writing history; that what you have here is Luke saying that the church was actually much more together, much more in fellowship with each other than was actually the case, and he's gone back and, as it were, “touched-up” the primitive early church to make it look better than it actually was.

Some read this passage and describe it as an experiment in social programming that just went wrong, that was never going to work. Those, of course, who have a bent to be critical of any form of socialism criticize this passage because they say these early Christians were naпve, and in holding all property in common and taking care of their needs, it meant the loss of wealth creation, and inevitably in the end they would run out of money and the whole program would come crashing down.

Well, before our imaginations take flight and run afancy, let's look at the text. What is it that Luke is saying here? Because Luke isn't saying half of those things.

Luke is not saying that there was a criticism on behalf of the early church of private ownership. He's not saying that. In fact, he says the very opposite. They continued, you remember, in each other's homes. They continued to eat in each other's homes. He described them as homes that belonged to certain people. In chapter 12 and verse 12 he’ll describe the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, and it's her home. She owns it.

Clement of Alexandria, preaching a series of sermons about a hundred years after Luke wrote The Acts of the Apostles, the middle of the second century or so, Clement of Alexandria in a series of sermons says, “If no one had anything, what room would be left among them for giving?” I mean, if you don't have anything, how could you give? How could you develop a principle, a responsibility to give to the work of the Lord, if you didn't have anything?

Look at what he says in verse 35: “...And laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each, as any had need.” This is not a principle of equality. This is a principle of need. It's not a principle of equality. The goods weren't divided up equally. Luke, or the early church, or Peter and John or the apostles aren't saying that it is inherently wrong for some to have more than others. They were distributing according to need.

Notice also that Luke tells us that they sold...Barnabas sold a piece of property. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property. It could hardly be right to engage in the free market economy of buying and selling if it was inherently wrong to have ownership of property. It was entirely voluntary.

What Luke is describing here is very different from the Essene communities that sprang up around this time in the Dead Sea area. The Qumran community of the Dead Sea scrolls, for example, made it a mandatory requirement that in joining that little sect beside the Dead Sea you had to give up your ownership to everything. It was a mandatory policy.

The church has grown from 120 to approximately 20,000 people. There are 5,000 men, Luke says, gender specific, meaning that there are probably something in the region of 20,000 souls needing to be looked after and fed.

Now, Jerusalem at this time, in the middle to about the 40's to the 50's of the first century, Jerusalem was not a very prosperous city. Some of the great historians — Plutonius and Josephus and others — tell us that Jerusalem had experienced famine and deprivation and need. Many older Jews — forgive me if I say that somewhat indiscreetly — but many older Jews of the diaspora who didn't live in Jerusalem, especially widows, would come back to Jerusalem, to come home to Jerusalem, and oft

Doesn't Paul tell us in the first chapter of Corinthians that God doesn't call many mighty people? He actually doesn't call many wealthy people into the church. Now, you have to scratch your heads, perhaps, looking round here, because in comparison to some of these Christians in Jerusalem, we're all extremely wealthy. But the fact of the matter is that probably there were many, many Christians in the church at this time who had considerable needs. And what develops and emerges and grows now is a sense of concern, and a burden, and a sense of responsibility to such an extent that Luke says in verse 34 that no one, as many as were owners...back up to the beginning of verse 34, “...there was not a needy person among them.”

What a wonderful testimony! What a wonderful display of what Christianity has done to the hearts and lives and souls of these people! They’d been forgiven of their sins, and it had brought them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, but it had also brought them into a family. They were brothers and sisters. And what a marvelous, what an astonishing display of the work of the Holy Spirit, that there wasn't a needy person amongst them in a city that was probably extremely needy, and in certain sections of it, extremely poor. And there's this marvelous display of the power and energy and transformation that the Holy Sprit brings into the lives of individuals and into the lives of the community called the church, that they voluntarily submit themselves now to a common concern for one another, as each one had need.

Well, my friends, I'm sure that there is a multitude of things that we can learn from that...a multitude of things that we can learn from that, in terms of our own concern for one another and our own concern for brothers and sisters not just here, but in other parts of the world, who have great needs and diaconal responsibilities, and the concern that the church ought and does so to the needs of God's people.

But it's the contrast that Luke wants us to see. There's great grace here. We all want to be part of the church at the end of chapter 4 ...hands of those who want to be part of the church at the end of chapter 4! I do! Yes, take me there! I'd love to see that. It would be wonderful to see. Professors of economics, I'm sure, would love to go back and see and ask all kinds of questions about their understanding of the free market economy in Jerusalem and what that means in terms of what Christianity says. It would be wonderful to be there on the Lord's Day, and on the weekdays, as the people of God are trying to find their identity. They’re still Jews, you understand. They’re still attending the temple. They’re still attending the synagogue. I doubt if they’re going to the sacrificial ceremonies of the temple, but they’re still in the temple precincts. They still identify themselves at this stage as Jews - Jews who have found the Messiah; Messianic Jews, if you like, without the connotations that we often associate with that term today. But what a wonderful, extraordinary blessing it must have been to see that–the great grace. Oh, for days like that again, that great grace might be what we might receive!

But Luke wants us to see the contrast, and it's not just great grace that we see here, but great fear....great fear. You see it in verse 5 and you see it again in verse 11. And the contrast is introduced by the story of Barnabas. Now, we will see Barnabas again. We’re just being introduced to Barnabas, and Luke is telling his readers (after the event of course) that the apostles called him Barnabas, but he probably wasn't even called Barnabas at this stage. He was called “Joseph, a Levite from the island of Cyprus,” to which of course the church will eventually go to evangelize and plant churches. But all of that is in the future. We’re just being introduced to this man Joseph, whom we now know as Barnabas, who did precisely what the church was doing: sold a piece of property and gave the proceeds voluntarily at the feet of the apostles, for the needy in the church.

And then immediately in chapter 5 we're introduced to Ananias and Sapphira:

“A man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge kept back for himself some of the proceeds.”

“Kept back for himself some of the proceeds....” Now at first you want to say that he has every right to do that. What's wrong with that? He was under no obligation to sell this piece of land, and he was under no obligation to devote all of the proceeds of the sale to the feet of the apostles for distribution in the church. He was under no obligation to do that, and Peter acknowledges that in verse 4. He says precisely that, those two very things: that he was under no obligation to sell; and, having sold, he was under no obligation to give all of the proceeds.

Now what's afoot here is not immediately obvious in the English text. The word that Luke uses to keep back some of the proceeds, the word he uses is a very rare word, and it's only used one other time in the Old Testament. Not in the Hebrew Old Testament, you understand, but in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the sort of “ESV” of their time...it was the version of the Bible that they all read. Hardly any of them read the Hebrew Bible by this time. Many of them didn't even speak Hebrew anymore; they spoke Aramaic, so they read the Greek translation. And in their Greek translation, this word kept back is only found one time. It's in Joshua, chapter 7 and verse 1. It's the story of Achan.

You remember the story of Achan. The Israelites have conquered the city of Jericho and now they’re on the brink of going to the next great city, the city of Ai. And all of the plunder, all of the goods were to be devoted to the Lord–and you remember what happens. Achan saw a goodly Babylonish garment, and shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold. He saw — remember the four verbs? He saw, he coveted, he took, and he hid. It's the word took...stole, kept back for himself. That's the word. It's a loaded word, you understand, that Luke is employing here.

It's not that he was under obligation to sell this land; it's not that he was under obligation that having sold he must devote all of the proceeds. What he was under obligation to do was, having made a promise and a covenant with the church, he was to keep that promise and covenant. He lied. He lied, and Peter confronts him, and Peter says to him ‘What you have done is not simply lie to men, but you have lied to the Holy Spirit. You have lied to God.’ It's interesting, by the way...in verse 3 he talks about the Holy Spirit, and in verse 4 in a parallel statement he talks about God. And here's one of the great proof texts of the deity of the Holy Spirit and the personality of the Holy Spirit: that the Holy Spirit is a person, that He can be lied to. Just as they have already begun to speak of Jesus as Lord, these Jews who had recited the Shemah of Israel — “Behold, the Lord your God is one” — are now beginning to speak of God as the one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, it will take 300 years or more to formulate that into a creedal formulation, but already here there's the root, as it were, the seedling of what will develop into the doctrine of the Trinity.

Having lied to the Holy Sprit, Ananias drops down dead, and young men in the church (pallbearers...the early church had pallbearers on their staff!) — they take him out and bury him. And three hours later — three hours later! — Sapphira comes.

F.F. Bruce, who in other circumstances I love and admire greatly, but F.F. Bruce seems to want to say to us that Peter just was unskilled as a pastor. He should have told her first that her husband had died. Well, whatever his lacking in skills as a pastor, he was certainly skilled in the skill of interrogation! Because she was complicitous in the plot with Ananias; and Peter (and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God Himself) finds this out in the hearing of the apostles. And she falls down dead and is taken out and buried beside her husband.

What an extraordinary tale. Who wants to go back to the early church? Who wants to be a part of the church in Acts, chapter 5? What is this saying to us tonight?

Well, at least four things: first of all, the seriousness of sin. You know, we live in a day and age even in the church — even in the church! — where we make light of sin. We joke about it, we dismiss it. You know, we're Christians, we're forgiven, we're covered by the blood. Yes, I've done this sin or that sin or another sin; but as our ruling elder reminded us in prayer this evening, we are unworthy even to come into the very presence of God. And if this story teaches us anything at all, it teaches us the seriousness of sin, and the seriousness of the sin of hypocrisy, because Ananias and Sapphira wanted a name for themselves. They wanted a name that said ‘We are one of the great givers in the church.’ And they were hypocrites.

Now, I have to say to you with all honesty tonight that in the 35 years or so I've been reading my Bible, ever since I was converted, I find this story immensely difficult. I have to be honest with that. To lie about the sale of a piece of real estate that is effectively mine in the first place...how great a sin is that? How great a sin is that? And you see, in asking that question we reveal how easily we view sin differently from the way God views sin. Because what is sin in the eyes of God? It is that which cost the life of His Son in order to atone for it.

This passage, my friends, teaches us something about the seriousness of sin.

Secondly, it teaches us something about the malevolence of Satan. Do you notice the question that Peter asks in verse 3 of chapter 5? Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart...?’ Actually, Luke, as he tells this story, tells it in precisely the same way that he tells the betrayal of Jesus by Judas: that Satan had filled his heart. And it seems that Luke is saying there's a parallel here...there's a parallel here, and behind this parallel of Judas and Ananias and Sapphira, there's a malevolence and wickedness of Satan.

You see, Satan can't stand it when you love each other. When you’re falling out with each other and bickering about this, that, and the other, he loves it! He's partying! But he can't stand it when you love each other. This was a dangerous time for Satan, when the church grew from 120 to 20,000 in a matter of weeks; and into that early fledgling church he comes with his hatred. As Jesus had warned that He would build His church, and the gates of Hades, the gates of hell, will not prevail against it. But what He's saying is that when He builds His church, He builds it within sight of enemy occupied territory. This is like one of those Katyusha rockets coming from Lebanon and landing in the backyard of the church, and exploding, and shrapnel going everywhere.

Thirdly, it teaches us something of the holiness of God. Peter says to Ananias that he had lied not just to the Spirit, to the Holy Spirit. He's the Holy Spirit. God is holy. He's set apart. He's different from creation. He cannot look upon sin. He's of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.

Dennis Johnson, in a commentary on Acts, says:

“If we are shocked by what God does here, if we are shocked, we have fallen into sin. We have fallen into sin because we have failed to appreciate the holy character of God.”

God is not just some benign Santa Claus in the sky; God is holy.

You know, this story doesn't occur in the Old Testament. You know, if this story occurred somewhere in Joshua or Judges, we would probably try to dismiss it and bring some kind of redemptive historical perspective; you know...that we've passed from the old covenant into the new covenant — and we have an enormous tome of theological reference in order to put it way back somewhere in the back of our minds. But this is right at the very center of the New Testament, in the very center of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Ananias and Sapphira died, my friends, because God did it. God did this. This was an act of retribution.

And maybe you say tonight ‘My God doesn't do things like that.’ My friend, I say to you that the God of the Bible does. And I don't know what God you’re talking about, but the God of the Bible does this. The holiness of God....

And fourthly, and lastly, it teaches us about the fear of God: “Great fear came upon the church.”

Does this story make you tremble just a little? Just a little? It should make you tremble just a little! Is it ever right to be afraid of God? After all, I'm a child of God. I'm a forgiven sinner. I have peace with God. I repeat Romans 8:28ff to myself every day:

“Nothing shall separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Not life, not death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all of creation...”

What have I got to be afraid of? Presumption. Presumption, because that assurance, my friends, comes only in the pathway of obedience to the stipulations of the way of the covenant.

Is it right to be afraid of God? You know, I remember reading thirty years ago in John Murray's Principles of Conduct an answer that I've never forgotten. He asked that very question: Is it right to be afraid of God? And he said:

“It is the height of folly not to be afraid of God when there's every reason to be afraid.”

If you have no reason to be afraid, then don't be afraid; but if you’re living like Ananias and Sapphira, if you’re living in defiance of God, if you view of God is such that you convince yourself ‘God doesn't see this, God doesn't hear this, God isn't concerned about this sin of mine,’ then you have every reason to be afraid. And the death of Ananias and Sapphira was only a little glimpse, a little portent of the fate that awaits those who defy Him in the ultimate sense; for then, my friends, they will be destroyed in eternal fire.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. Continue to write it upon our hearts. Give us a holy seriousness in following after You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.