The Act of Deception May 1, 2022
O God of sight and insight, send your Holy Spirit to remove the scales from our eyes, so that we might see your truth and grasp your wisdom. Grant us fresh understanding of your Word and your will for our lives. Amen.
That was a very uncomfortable passage from the book of Acts which we heard read this morning. Certainly, God in the Old Testament can be seen to be harsh or cruel as there are many examples where he had to discipline people in order to correct their behavior. But we tend to be very uncomfortable with this version of God and prefer to downplay or ignore that part of him and look rather at the God of the New Testament, portrayed through the life of Jesus, who healed people, showed compassion, and welcomed the downtrodden and outcast.
But let’s never forget that Jesus is part of the Trinity and is one with God, so, as the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13.8), and that is the same for God, the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, he never changes.
I think one reason people get the false impression that the God of the Old Testament is "angry" is that he dealt with his people in more physical ways, whereas in the New Testament he judged them on a more spiritual level. Many times, Jesus warned his followers about false teachers, about greed, pride and even about not being prepared for his return, saying, “‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’” (Luke 21:34-36) As you can see, Jesus was much more than just a nice man. He wanted us to be prepared.
But a full discussion concerning the God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New Testament is one best left for another day. For now, let’s have a closer look at this morning’s reading and see what we can learn from it.
These verses from the book of Acts can be divided into three parts, the first being verses 32-35 which describe the health of the early church in the period immediately after Pentecost when, thanks to the Holy Spirit working through the Apostles, more than 8000 people came to faith in Jesus Christ. Then we have verses 36-37 where one of these new believers by the name of Barnabas is shown to be an example of all that the church can be. Then, in contrast, the balance of the reading, chapter 5, verses 1-11, show that even in those early days the church was less than perfect and sometimes man let his sin nature take control of his life. Times have changed but those in ancient times people had their human nature to deal with just as much as we do today.
Let start with the first section, in which the Apostle Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave 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 owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
We know those early days of the church’s history were electrifying times. They were happy days; they were blessed days, and days of fellowship. They were days of breaking bread around the Lord’s Table and sharing meals with fellow believers. They felt and acted like a family, and if anyone was in need, they helped them out. For them God was real, Christ was alive, the Spirit’s power surged through them. It was glorious, and the people were literally on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit and were inspired by the resurrection of Jesus.
And, as example of this, Luke tells us about the actions of one of the new Christians by the name of Barnabas, he writes, “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
We’re not told much about Barnabas by Luke, but he would go on to play an important part in the lives of the early apostles. Barnabas becomes an important character later on in Acts, mainly as a missionary and a preacher. Throughout Acts his name appears in 5 different chapters, and in each case, it is as someone helping and supporting one of the early church leaders and the people.
Perhaps the most important of these is in Acts chapter 9 where Luke tells us, “When he (Paul) had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:22-27) This was Paul, formerly known as Saul, who up until a short time ago had been one of the strongest persecutors of Christians. It wasn’t until that encounter with Jesus on that road, as he was on the way to Damascus to arrest and bring to Jerusalem his followers, that Paul became a believer and one of the strongest defenders of the faith. No wonder those disciples of Jesus, who were living in Jerusalem at the time, would have been afraid of Paul. They would have been first-hand witnesses to all that he had done to their fellow believers.
But here was Barnabas, who had been with them since the early days, standing up and vouching for Paul, telling the others that Paul had had a miraculous conversion at the hands of Jesus himself and was now his strongest advocate. And because Barnabas said Paul could be trusted, the disciples embraced him. No wonder the apostles gave him the name Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement”. We all can use a Barnabas who tells the truth.
But now after hearing about the generosity of Barnabas we come to the difficult part of this morning’s reading. Luke tells us, “But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.”
Now this man, Ananias, like Barnabas, had a piece of property that he wished to sell and give the proceeds to the church. But, unlike Barnabas, he planned to keep some of the proceeds of the sale for his own use. And that wasn’t a problem for the church, Peter said, “‘While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?’” So, Ananias had the right to do whatever he wished with his property.
No, the problem arose when he claimed to have given all the proceeds of the sale to the church. He had the freedom to give some or all of it to help with the Lord's work, but he didn’t have the right to give part, lie about it and claim that he gave it all. In trying to pretend that he was much more generous than he was, he was guilty of hypocrisy. And to have done this to his fellow man would have been one thing, but to try to lie to God was quite another. As Peter said to him, “‘You did not lie to us but to God!’”
And not only did Ananias lie, but his wife backed him up in the deception. We’re told, “After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, 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 died.”
The wife’s name was Sapphira, and Luke had already said, “But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” So, she was in agreement with her husband’s plan to keep some of the proceeds of the sale for themselves and lie about it. She was just as guilty as Ananias in deceiving God, so she received the same sentence as he did, death.
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Why did God punish Ananias and Sapphira so harshly and are we in danger of the same sentence when we lie to him?” That is a hard question to answer. Certainly, we don’t know all the ways of God and why he does many things. When tragedy strikes, don’t we often say to ourselves, “I wonder why God allowed that to happen?” And many times, we’ll hear someone give the explanation, “God works in mysterious ways.” But in the end, while we are here on earth, we’ll never completely understand why Ananias and Sapphira were sentenced to death for their deception.
But what we do know is that lying, and it doesn’t matter to whom, is a sin. And there’s no such thing as a “little white lie”, a lie is a lie. Certainly, from our perspective, the sentence carried out on Ananias and Sapphira was harsh, but even if we don’t understand why God carried it out, it can serve as a reminder to us and the way we deal with our fellow man. We know God’s way is truth and justice and we should govern ourselves accordingly.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, we know that you have a plan for us, and we know we will all have to face trials throughout our lives. We don’t always know why things happen but trusting in you can help diminish our fear of the unknown. Help us to understand that sometimes not knowing all the answers is all part of learning to trust you and your plan. Keep us on the road of truth and justice for all. Amen