Getting Caught Up In a Religious Show

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. 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 all 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 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.—Acts 4:32-37

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 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.
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? 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.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
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.”
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. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.—Acts 5:1-11

Here’s a story that might seem as if it belongs in the Old Testament rather than the New. The story related by our keynote passage begins with an idyllic picture of new Christians, living together and sharing their lives. But then, in the midst of this upbeat picture of God’s favor and blessings, comes a depressing story of a man and his wife who gave an offering to God, but misrepresented the actual amount of how much they gave. In the middle of this time when God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all (Acts 4:33) God took the life of this husband and wife.

Our keynote passage causes us to ask: What does God taking the life of this man and wife have to do with his grace? Let me offer seven points to ponder as we consider the implications and teachings we can glean from this passage:

#1 Let’s first examine what this passage doesn’t mean. This passage has been misinterpreted as a warning. The account of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira has been, and continues to be, preached to wide-eyed congregations and Sunday schools and classes at Bible colleges as a threat— “God might do the same thing to you if you lie to the leadership of the church.” People are told by a religious authority, “If you don’t tell the truth, you might suffer the same fate as Ananias and Sapphira.”

The story of Ananias and Sapphira does not appear in the book of Acts so that religious authorities can use it to beat people into submission!

#2 The sin of Ananias and Sapphira is not what we normally call lying—it’s far more than lying. Hypocrisy is the real issue under critical review, hypocrisy driven by the expectations of religion, driven by a total misunderstanding of God. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, conspired to “get their stories straight” in a vain attempt to prevent their lie from being discovered. This kind of conspiracy happens all the time, doesn’t it? It happens between siblings, who try to protect each other so that mom and dad won’t find out the truth. It happens in the workplace, in the home, in courthouses, jails, government offices, police stations—and yes, it happens in churches.

#3 But the sin of Ananias and Sapphira is far more involved than merely attempting to prevent the truth from being told. Why did they lie and conspire together to get their stories straight? They weren’t children, afraid of being punished by their father and mother. They weren’t facing jail time—they weren’t going to be fined. So why did they do what they did?

This story happened against the backdrop of the rapid growth of the early New Testament church. The church was growing, and it was having the same kind of problems that churches always do when they grow. New Christians were having difficulties distinguishing between the “local” church they could see—the visible church, with all of its activities, sharing and caring, outreach programs, leadership, and financial contributions, and of course with all of its imperfections —and the universal invisible body of Christ.

We can safely assume that many new Christians thought the visible church they could see was one and the same as the invisible, real church, the body of Christ, which is filled with grace, offering unconditional love. But confusing the visible and invisible church can cause problems!

People started to be captivated by external activities. They started to think that their relationship with the visible church, with all of its programs and leadership, was one and the same as their relationship with God. They started to focus on their involvement in programs—in how they contributed, how they gave, how they served—and of course how other people saw them contributing, giving and serving.

Ananias and Sapphira were not ordered or required to sell their property—they were in full control of their possessions. What we are reading about was not a church policy enforced by rule-of-law communism. Sharing financial resources was voluntary and not a requirement of being a part of the church. Ananias and Sapphira got caught up in the moment—caught up in the excitement, and instead of a Christ-centered focus, for them, and no doubt many others at the time, outward appearances became the focus. Performance and contributions became the visible manner in which people were judged to be righteous and a part of the team.

#4 Here, in the midst of these fledgling, new Christians, Christ-less religion, with all of its externalism, trappings, pomp and ceremony seemed to be rearing its evil head. Somewhat like a fog, Christ-less religion was obscuring the vision and focus of these people of the Way (Acts 19:9, 23), among whom God’s grace was so powerfully at work… (Acts 4:33).

A brief study of the New Testament reveals that God opposes pride, arrogance and hypocrisy because they are absolute opposites to his mercy, grace and love. In Matthew 23, for example, Jesus directs seven woes to religious authorities, whom he identifies six different times as hypocrites. They are two-faced. They are wearing a religious mask, putting on their “church faces,” thinking that others will respect and admire them for being something they are not.

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira started when they got caught up in a religious show. While they should not have deceived and lied about the amount of money they gave, the real problem was their desire to be seen as being something they were not and doing something they did not do. They came to believe that their relationship with the external church—its real estate, assets, physical leadership, programs and ceremonies—was the same as their relationship with God and therefore believed they could deceive the invisible God just as they could deceive a visible organization.

Just as many people do today, Ananias and Sapphira had a warped idea of God. They were fearful of their inability to measure up. They didn’t think they would be accepted unless they matched the generosity of others, like Barnabas. They thought they were trying to please God, but they were just trying to please a religious misconception of God. Their behavior was denying a fundamental truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ—we cannot earn God’s acceptance.

You may remember the old sitcom “Seinfeld.” One of my favorite episodes was called “The Conversion.” George —one of the main characters —decided to join the Latvian Orthodox Church because his girlfriend told him that she had to break up with him if he didn’t join her church.

But when George found out all the stuff he had to do to join the church, he started to have second thoughts. George complained to his good friend Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and Jerry told him, “Well, what did you expect? You think they’ll just let you change your religion like you change your toothpaste?”

George was still complaining when he talked to the priest about all the confirmation classes he would have to take and tests he would have to pass. George asked the priest, “Don’t you have some kind of express conversion?”

If you know much about the hoops you have to jump through to join some churches, you know that it isn’t easy at all. So George, because he wanted to please his girlfriend, started taking classes to prepare for the test.

Illustrating the hypocrisy that such religious demands cause, George wrote the answers on his hand so that he could cheat during his test. The camera pans on his hand so that you can see the notes George had written. George is a modern idea of the kind of religious show in which Ananias and Sapphira were participating. Ananias and Sapphira thought everyone would be impressed if they said that they gave more than they actually did.

#5 God, in his mercy and grace, decided that this whole pretense had to be stopped—both for then and there, and also as a written record to be read and understood for many centuries afterwards. These new Christians were taking a wrong turn, heading down the path of legalism and externalism.

Many of the new Christians were becoming impressed with the enormous growth God was granting the church, with the miracles, with the healings, with things that could be seen and observed. Some may have even started to think of the church then, with all its miracles and healings, the way some depict and define Christianity today. Turn on what is generally known as Christian cable television in North America and unfortunately you will see many examples.

So what was the head of the church, Jesus Christ, doing? He was insisting on his gospel—he was insisting that the kingdom of heaven should be the focus of those who follow him on earth, rather than the kingdom of religion. He was doing what leaders must do—lead. He was making a course correction. He was making a strong and powerful statement against Christ-less religion, and all that it can lead to, as opposed to his grace. He was saying that he and he alone is the one who is unique and special. He and he alone should be the center of our faith. As we often say here at CWR—faith alone, grace alone and Christ alone.

#6 But let’s ask an obvious question. Why isn’t God consistent? Was it “fair” for him to take the lives of Ananias and Sapphira when they got caught up in religious hypocrisy, and not to do the same thing with everyone else throughout history who fell for the same temptation and behaved in the same way? The answer in brief—we don’t know.

Should we be inclined to judge God, let’s remember that God did not ask for a vote before he did what he did. He does not lay out all of the considerations before us—about Ananias and Sapphira, or for that matter, many other situations we face in our own lives. God doesn’t ever say that he is going to seek a consensus from us before he acts—and he certainly never says that he is going to restrict himself to the permission we might presume to give him.

Come to think of it, there are many things, both in the history recorded in the Bible, and history at large, as well as each of our own individual lives about which we are in the dark. God never says that he is accountable to us. He does tell us that his ways are often beyond human perception and comprehension. He reveals his love, grace and mercy to us. He offers us a relationship based on his love, grace and mercy, but he never even hints that we will ever, on this side of eternity, be able to plumb the height, length, width and depth of his wisdom, his love and his grace.

#7 Here’s what we can take away from the story of Ananias and Sapphira:

  •  God obviously does not consider this incident as a legal precedent. No religious authority has the right to threaten those they “serve” with a similar outcome unless they shape up. This is the history of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts, not a binding, legal precedent. God obviously allows hypocritical vain “shows” to masquerade in his name.
  •  Those who follow the Way need to have their priorities straight and their focus centralized on the person of Jesus Christ. He alone is our priority. Everything else is excess baggage. We do not serve and follow Jesus so that we can impress others with how hard we work or how much we give and contribute. If Jesus alone is our focus, we will avoid wearing the mask Christ-less religion gives us, which turns us all into two-faced, religious hypocrites.
  •  Our relationship with God is so intimate and personal that it is invisible. Our relationship with God does not depend on, nor is it defined or limited by or diminished by a visible entity that calls itself a church. We must realize that we cannot, by anything we do or give or how much we serve, no matter how generous or hard working we might be, manipulate God into loving us more than he already does.
  •  The story of Acts 5 is a story of the judgment of God against Christ-less religion, and all of its silly and empty attempts that (we might be deceived into thinking) actually please and impress God. God is not pleased when anyone attempts to turn the beauty and sanctity of his grace into a carnival-like show. But again, he seems to allow it in history, as well as in our day and age.
  •  The kingdom of heaven is God’s kingdom—not our own. When we begin to think that what we do actually brings about God’s kingdom, we spiritually cripple ourselves. We cannot bring about the kingdom of heaven—that goal has already been accomplished. We cannot actualize or advance or grow the kingdom of heaven—we cannot bring the kingdom of heaven into existence, because it not only already exists, it is dynamic and thriving.
  •  We can, unwittingly, thinking we are helping the kingdom of heaven, actually help the growth of the kingdom of religion. We inherit the kingdom of heaven by God’s grace. We enter the kingdom of religion on the basis of our work, diligence and deeds. We earn and deserve the kingdom of religion—we receive, by God’s grace, the kingdom of heaven. We “get” the salvation offered by the kingdom of religion—we are “given” salvation by the kingdom of heaven. As Christ-followers, we can and we will pass on the good news of the kingdom of heaven by pointing others to the Master—our Savior—the Good Shepherd of our souls.
  •  God has not consistently punished hypocrisy in the body of Christ the way he did with Ananias and Sapphira. Had he done so, all who vainly professed to follow Christ would have died a premature death. All of us, on some level, are guilty of hypocrisy. We can conclude that God took this extraordinary action only once, or at least only once we all know about. Though God opposes pride and hypocrisy, he also forgives us of our many failings, by his mercy and grace.

We have nothing to offer God that he doesn’t already have. We can, however, receive his grace—that is his loving offer to each of us.