Sermon Series- The Acts of the Apostles: The First Thirty Years
Let’s get back to Acts 5:1-11. What appears to be happening is that wealthy patrons are divesting themselves of all or a portion of their wealth to support the Church’s ministry to the needy within the body. Not everyone appears to be laying gifts at the apostles’ feet. Only those who are underwriting the church’s ministry to the poor via large gifts seem to be doing it. The gifts that Barnabas and Ananias are giving are meant to say more than, “Here’s an offering. I hope it helps.” No, they are laying their livelihoods and lives at the apostles’ feet. That is what we know Barnabas’ to be doing because that is his life hereafter. It is what I think Luke is contrasting when he places Ananias’ gift next to Barnabas’. It is also why Anania’s sin is so grotesque. He is attempting to place himself among the patrons of the Church who say, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather be his than have riches untold,” to quote another old hymn. Because for him, that’s not true. Ananias is living in a satanic deception and is himself lying “to the Holy Spirit” He is committing the sins found in the book of Malachi.
Malachi is such an important little book. It is the last book of the Old Testament, both in place and chronologically too. And while it was written 500 years before the book of Acts, cultures didn’t change much back then. One of the issues that plagued Israel historically was half-hearted worship. It comes up in Malachi chapter 1 as one of the accusations God makes against His people.
11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lordof hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. 13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.
Verse 11 is beginning to be fulfilled before Barnabas’ and Ananias’ eyes. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit inaugurated the New Covenant and Christ’s name is becoming “great among the nations.” Ananias is cutting corners as the Jews had done for generations. However, the New Covenant differs from the Old because God is with and in His people. The Holy Spirit has descended and is present in the Church in power. Barnabas will see this prophecy fulfilled in his life, but Ananias’ life will end on this day. Why? Malachi 1:14,
“Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.”
The nations have begun to come in. There are Jews in this body from all over the Mediterranean region as 3000 heads of households came to faith on day one from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). God has brought to an end half-hearted worship by filling the hearts of His people to the full with himself. No longer will this type of underhanded sacrifice be tolerated. Anania’s gift is the monetary version of giving a gimpy lamb as a free will offering in the Old Testament. “Cursed be the cheat,” says the Lord, and Ananias is a cheat. He has sacrificed “to the Lord what is blemished” because he stole a portion of it for himself. He had, figuratively speaking, “a male in his flock, and” he vowed to give “it.” Nobody forced Ananias to sell his property or give the proceeds to the church. He made the vow of his own free will. Peter brings all this up when he confronts him.
“3 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?” 4 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 man but to God.”
Ananias is giving a sizable gift. Let’s say he sold five acres in Rutherford county. That would probably be 125,000.00 or more. Let’s be sneaky. He can’t keep 50%. Nobody would believe he sold five good acres for 62,500.00, so let’s go with 75%. That would be 93,700.00. This example should help you contextualize the gift he and Barnabas are giving. You can see how he justified keeping a portion of the sale in his mind. He’s practically giving 100k. But God didn’t need Ananias’ money. God wanted Ananias. He wanted Sapphira too. Let’s not forget about Sapphira here. She is in on the conspiracy to defraud God with her husband. Peter will ask her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?” She is not an innocent bystander.
Ananias wanted the glory of being a patron of the church. He wanted people to think he was giving himself wholly to God. He was committed to his public image. Allow me to make an informed guess. I’d say this is how he’d built his reputation in the synagogue as a Jewish worshiper before. Together he and Sapphira both wanted the appearance of godliness. They wanted to be seen as holy and fully committed to Jesus by everyone around them. They wanted the influence a sizable gift would typically bring to the giver. They wanted the seats of honor. They did not lay their offering at the apostles’ feet out of love for God but out of love of self and for the praises of men. Their giving was half-hearted, cursed, and satanic. “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit…” Peter asks. The scary part about this text is that it demonstrates to us that the means of grace, which are the means of worship, can be put to satanic uses. We can fake it, look good doing it, and appear to be giving a lot of money to boot. Ananias and Sapphira are the Nadab and Abihu of the New Testament. They are struck down as an early warning to us just as Nadab and Abihu were to Moses’ generation. Listen to what happened to them in the first organized worship service under the newly given Law.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
God did not ask for Nadab and Abihu’s incense, nor did He ask for Ananias and Sapphira’s gift. Both were offered freely by the giver, but neither were authorized. They were both strange fire, to quote the King James version, and both were struck down for their presumption. We should receive the warning God gave through Moses. “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” (Leviticus 10:3) Let me add here Malachi 1:14b alongside it for a little more color, “For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” Ananias and Sapphira’s death, like Nadab and Abihu’s death, was a shock to everyone, both inside the church and out. The last verse of our passage reads, (Acts 5:11) And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
Look for Part 5 of “Finding & Losing Our Lives For Jesus’ Sake” tomorrow.
Blessings and may God be with you!