By Simon ManchesterSunday 20 Nov 2016Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 18 minutes
We are going to look together at Acts Chapter 5 as part of our morning series. There was an article in the paper, which suggested that Christians should re-think the symbol of a crucified Christ representing Christianity. The article said, ‘It does not match the joyous laughing Buddha, and the Church should find something more positive.’
I agree that a crucifix (that is, a cross with Jesus hanging on it) is an unhelpful symbol because it tends to emphasise the physical suffering of Jesus and it does not proclaim the victory of Christ over death and sin, and judgement as say an empty cross does. But the article is not grappling with that issue. The article is saying that a crucifix, or even a cross, is not a positive image. The article suggests that we should have, perhaps, Jesus walking on water as the image or the turning of water into wine, because, says the writer, we are a DIY people. So, I love the idea of having St Thomas’s with a large symbol of Jesus walking on water, for DIY people, so that they can drive past and say, ‘That gives me a terrific idea: I’m going to try and do that myself’ or something.
But, apart from missing the point of the cross, which is that salvation is done by Jesus and that we are not proclaiming a do-it-yourself religion apart from missing that whole point, the writer wants a positive message and wants a positive message to keep fussy unbelievers from being put-off the local Church. Now if we are going to keep people from being put-off from the local Church, we probably need to tear out that Acts 5 page. So if you could just grab the page … no. Let’s study it this morning and see whether it should be removed before we tear it out. It’s certainly not a passage designed to help people warm-up to the Church. This is not a seeker-sensitive passage. It’s a story of a couple in the early Church, who join the queue of the Christians who are donating their money to the fellowship. Their names are Ananias and Sapphira, and they pretend to bring all the proceeds of the sale of their property. They keep some back for themselves and, because of the pretence, because of the dishonesty, because of the hypocrisy, astoundingly, astonishingly, frighteningly, they are struck down by God. And Luke, who writes this, as you know is a doctor, and he uses the word for ‘expire’ he suddenly breathed his last. And it seems this story is a unique and a very sobering story in the early Church and instead of contributing to that happiness of the Church (Verse 5), there is great fear.
Can you imagine a couple in this local Church who are dishonest about something and they die? And we gather together on this Sunday morning, and we are conscious that two people, who were just disobedient, have been struck down and great fear, of course, would come across the Church today. And Verse 13, we are told, that nobody dared join them. It was not a light thing to join the Church.
So I want to ask before we turn to the two points: is there anything more important than making the Church a happy place? They are very secular days that we live in, and so there is no point in making the Church a very unnecessarily gloomy place. It’s hard enough to awaken people to the Good News, without turning the place into a cemetery. But is there anything more important than making the Church into a happy place? I come fairly regularly to Church, as you know, and I have the propensity to get discouraged, and there are days when I am so flat, as I think about Sunday, and I am so sore, that I can hardly bring myself to come and hear one more bashing or some battering challenge. And yet, the remarkable thing is, that as I come along to the local Church, with all the rawness that is experienced, and I find again that I am faced with the God of the Scriptures, and the people of God and the fellowship, again and again, and again, I am inwardly strengthened, refreshed, supported and built up. And I trust, that as we look at Acts 5, you will not have a different experience from that.
Two things, this morning: the early Church of Jesus Christ and then the Holy Church of Jesus Christ.
First, the early Church. Look at Chapter 4, Verse 34, ‘There were no needy persons in the early Church. From time to time, those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales, and put it at the Apostles’ feet. Chapter 5, Verse 1, ‘But, a man named Ananias, with his wife, Sapphira, also sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s full knowledge, kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the Apostles’ feet, as though it was everything’. And Peter somehow knows about this, and he asks Ananias, and Ananias lies, and Peter asks Sapphira, and she lies and as we see, they are struck down by God.
Why are we told this story? I want to give you some reasons why we are told this story. First of all, we are being introduced to the real Church, which is an imperfect Church. We have been over four chapters of Acts so far. We haven’t really seen any sinfulness in the Church, and yet we know that there were 500 members and we know the 500 members were all forgiven sinners and continued to be forgiven sinners, and so there was a lot of sin in the Church, but this is the first incident that is especially recorded for us, and it’s an example of sin which is deliberate, and it’s destructive of the fellowship, and it’s dealt with by God in a dramatic way of punishment.
Interestingly, in Chapter 5 Verse 11, it’s the first time the word ‘Church’ is used in the Book of Acts, and it seems that we are being introduced to the Church as a reality, as a place that is imperfect. So don’t be naïve or romantic about the early Church. The writer of this Book of Acts is deliberately telling us it is not a perfect Church.
I remember a very famous Australian evangelist, making the point clear that we shouldn’t have pious views of the Church and we shouldn’t see it as some special, impressive club, but that we should see it as a bunch of people who are very grateful for Jesus. And the way he put this was to say, ‘Don’t be at all surprised if the Church does anything wrong. Do not be surprised if the Church and the ministry team do anything wrong. Be surprised if they do anything right. And if they do something right, well, give thanks to God for it’. And I think that’s probably a healthy balance. The non-Christian thinks that the local Church is a bunch of people who think they are pretty good, coming to hear a preacher tell them to be good. And they think to themselves, ‘Well, I’m already pretty good, and I don’t need to be told to be good’. But the real Christian knows that in fact, we are a bunch of people who are awake to our sinfulness, very grateful for Jesus, and hoping the preacher will tell us again that our hope is Jesus.
So, Ananias and Sapphira, you see, they are proof-positive that the early Church was imperfect. And it’s possible that they are nominal members of it. Every congregation has its unconverted people. They are usually the people who sit in Church, not the slightest bit worried about their souls, whereas the people who are worried about their souls, every now and again, show one of the signs of being converted. It’s possible that Ananias and Sapphira are part of the unconverted. But the Church, the early Church, is a bunch of people with the unconverted and the converted, and everybody sinful, learning hopefully about this great Saviour.
The second reason that we are told about Ananias and Sapphira is that we see strategy B of the devil. Strategy A of the devil, I hope you know, is persecution. We see that in Acts Chapters 3 and 4. It is outside attack. It must have frustrated the devil enormously, to see the persecution of the Church lead to the spread of the Gospel, as the Church, suddenly, started to keep telling the Word with boldness, as we saw last week. But here in Chapter 5, there is Strategy B of the devil. And Strategy B is the inside attack. And the inside attack is to introduce hypocrisy into the Church and to make the Church into a deliberately unholy people.
Now I want to say something to you about what hypocrisy is because many people get this confused. Hypocrisy is not being sinful. That’s normal. Hypocrisy is not recognising that there is a gap between what we know and what we do. That’s healthy to recognise that gap. Hypocrisy is pretence. Hypocrisy is where I present myself, or you present yourself as if there isn’t a gap between what I know and what I do. It is to pretend that that gap between what I know and what I do is either closed or negligible. That’s why we normally begin our service here on Sundays by praying, and asking that God will forgive us.
So, strategy B of the devil, introducing this destructive unholiness in the Church is an excellent way of representing God, who is Holy, breaking up the fellowship with deliberate evil, and then corroding the soul of people who continue to pretend that things are very different from what they are. So this is why Acts 5 is here. Strategy B of the devil. From the very beginning, the devil worked on – outside attack, inside attack, outside attack, inside attack, persecution, pretence, persecution pretence. And the aim, of course, is to destroy the work of the Word going forward and therefore God being honoured. And of course, we see how wonderfully God overrules it for His purpose.
The third reason why this story in Acts 5 is told is it tells us of the future judgement. Remember in Acts Chapter 3, there was a man specifically healed and restored, to show that there would one day be a great restoration. And here we are told that there is a judgement which takes place in the present, to tell us that there will be a great judgement to come.
So, what is God able to do? Restore. And He will do it. What is God able to do? Judge. And He will do it. What is the world moving towards? Judgement and Restoration and Acts Chapter 5 tells us this. Many of the commentaries point out, interestingly, that when God’s people were new in the Promised Land, there was a man, whose name began with ‘A’ called Achan, who embezzled things that he should have handed over… and he and his family were violently struck down, as a warning to the Church in the land. And here in the New Testament, where the Church is again new on its foundations, there is a man, whose name begins with ‘A’, who pretends or embezzles or fakes his Christianity. And he and his wife are violently struck down as a warning to the people. So there are these foundational warnings: do not pretend with God.
The fourth reason why this story is told to us is that it shows God overruled the whole process. And, if you know the Book of Acts, I hope you know that there is a little verse that comes up again and again through the Book of Acts which says something like this: and the Word of God spread. And we discover here, in Chapter 5, that although there is great fear in the Church, it’s healthy fear. The believers are turning away, mostly, from fleeting pleasures and they are giving themselves to lasting treasures. And we see, in Chapter 5 Verses 12-16, that God blesses the Church wonderfully as it deals with sin. He performs many miraculous sings and wonders and Verse 14 – he adds to the number. There is huge blessing, as God’s people live God’s way.
So, there, you see, what I suggest are the four reasons why we are told of Ananias and Sapphira. First of all, the Church is imperfect. Second, it is the strategy B of the devil to attack the inside of the Church – be alert. Thirdly, there is the reality of judgement and Ananias, and Sapphira is a preview of that. And then, there is the over-ruling of God, who continues to use and bless His people.
Now I want to say, secondly, this morning, something about the Holy Church, because this is the Church which continues to build and grow around the world. The things that we have just mentioned have very great relevance for this local Church and every local Church in the 21st Century and beyond.
And this is what I suggest that we learn. First, that the Church does not primarily exist for the comfort of its members. I do believe with all my heart; the Gospel is the most comforting message in the world. To say to a person, who is conscious of their sin before God, that there is a Saviour called Jesus, who has carried sin, on the cross and can carry away your guilt, and give you peace with God and a future in eternity. I do not know a more comforting message than that – profoundly, profoundly comforting. But Jesus did not call us to take up our pillows and to follow Him. However, we continue to think, in many parts of the Church, I think, that if we present God as a wonder-worker, as a genie, as a butler, who will quickly make everything wonderful, who is just waiting to wait on you, we will continue to think that this will win the world. But it’s a false view of God, and it’s a futile way to present God to the world.
Why is it that we think that if we can present that the Church is a ‘fun place’, people will come? We don’t tell people, as they are going off to work, ‘I hope this week will be a fun time for you’. We don’t say to people, as they are getting married, ‘I hope this will be fun’. We don’t say, as people go to school, do we, primarily, ‘I hope this is a fun day for you’. We keep thinking that if we can present the Church as a place that is fun, people will say, ‘Oh, that will be great’. And the reason we think like this, I guess, is that we have missed the primary purpose of the people of God, which is that we are to be useful. We are to represent Him who is Holy. We are to live for His glory. We are to live for His Will.
Now I don’t pretend that this is easy. I think that people do look at you and me and think that your Christianity is a private interest. I went to a lovely dinner this week. It was a lovely dinner of people. And there was somebody at the table who was an expert in art. And there was somebody who was an expert in music. And there was someone who was an expert is sport and travel and business and education. It was a great bunch of people. And I was there at one end of the table, and I am sure that they thought that for me, my version of the art or the music or the tennis was religion, was Christianity. And I hope if they had asked me, ‘Why? Why are you a Christian?’ I hope I would have been able to say, ‘Look, I am a Christian because Jesus is the bread of life’. See, I don’t believe that Jesus is the tennis of life, that He is an option. He presents Himself as a compulsory, as an essential, as a necessity. He presents Himself as the bread of life, as the light of the world, as the resurrection. He doesn’t, you see, present Himself in optional terms, but in compulsory terms. And the people, they didn’t ask me why I was a Christian, but if they had asked me, I hope I would have answered in those imperative terms. And if they had said, ‘Well, that’s your opinion’, I think, I hope I would have said, ‘No, that’s His opinion… He calls Himself (and I think He’s got the qualifications)… but I’m not a Christian because it’s just of peripheral interest. I’m not a Christian because it’s comforting. I’m not a Christian because it’s just a hobby. I am a Christian because He’s the bread of life. It’s imperative.’
The second thing I think we can learn from this is that the devil’s strategy from hypocrisy needs to be faced in the local Church. I wonder if you think, as you come to Church, that this Church has no right to meddle in your private life. I wonder if you do think like that? And if you think the Church has no right to meddle in your private life, I think you’ve misunderstood the reason why the Lord Jesus called the Church to be the Church. And the reason He called the Church to be the Church is that He wants us to represent Him, and He is the Lord of all of life, all of life. When we become Christians – I don’t know if you have ever thought about this – we surrender the right to be a private individual. We no longer say, ‘Keep out’ to God. We no longer think that we can say, ‘Keep out’ to God. And I don’t mean by that, as Christian people, we ought to think that we are God and that we can unnecessarily interfere in people’s lives, but it does mean that our fellowship can challenge the members of the fellowship about consistency. I hope you will challenge me about consistency (and people do) and I hope that I will challenge you about consistency (and some people let me do that) and we ought to have the humility when we are challenged about our consistency to listen, and then to amend, and to humbly respond and to repent of the things that are to be repented of. But if you want the Church, if you want to be part of a Church, which is utterly superficial, and leaves you to just get on with a ‘double-life’ or a compromised life, I wouldn’t come. And if you do come, I would shoot straight out afterwards and go home – just the pew and then home. That is what I would do if I were you. But I, speaking for one individual in the Church, do not want to be unchallenged. And I do not want to be unchanged. I want people who will challenge and see me change. And I suspect that many people who say that they want God, but not Church, there are many people who think like that, are saying that they just want God on their terms. And that of course is not Christianity. It is a very serious thing to be a Christian. The plan of God is not a double life, but an integrated life and He uses the Church to help the integrated life, not a disintegrated life.
One of the things that we can do, as believers, is to love hypocrisy out of the place.
One other thing that we can learn from this story of Ananias and Sapphira is that judgement is a very real and wonderful part of our message. We have to exercise some short-term judgement in the Church, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, but we also have to message long-term judgement. I hope you won’t be embarrassed about this at all. The world is longing for a day of justice. The Bible is longing for a day of justice. And the Ananias and Sapphira story is the reminder, the proof, that there is a day coming which is the day of justice, where sin will be dealt with. And the early Church didn’t regard this event with Ananias and Sapphira to be a day of injustice. You don’t get the impression, do you, that they complained about it. Even though Ananias was treated very severely, you don’t get the impression that they complained, even though Sapphira had got no pastoral support for the death of her husband, but was just challenged on the matter of holiness… you don’t get the impression the Church complained.
We need to make clear the message of judgement. Something more important is at stake than just our happiness, and that is, take God seriously.
The last thing this morning is that this story tells us in the continuing Church of God, that God blesses the Church with His purposes, and especially when they deal with sin. I wonder what would happen to this Church at St Thomas’s if each member of the Church lived seriously before God. What would happen to this fellowship, if every one of us went home and privately removed the sort of private compromise, which affects our fellowship with Him and with one another. What would happen to this fellowship? I imagine the spiritual temperature… I imagine the interest in the Scriptures… I imagine the concern for the unbeliever… the appreciation for God… the progress in prayer. There would be huge progress if individuals would deal with the sins that just drag and affect the fellowship because private sins of private individuals affect us as a body. Mine affect you. Yours affect me. And if we were to deal with the sins which do drag and trip us up, trap us, what wonderful things might happen. This early Church faced the sin, and we see in the Verses that follow (12-16) that God richly blessed them.
And you will see in Verse 14, in case anybody wants to know why you would join a Church that took sin seriously, the answer is in Verse 14, it is because ‘the Lord added them to the Church’. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? The Lord added them to the Church. Friends, why don’t people regularly come to Church? Well, because for many of them, they think it is just a human activity. Am I free? Do I feel that I want to go? Does it suit? Well, I will go. I was hearing an American this week say that there is a Church in the United States, and it has 11,000 members and every Sunday, approximately 40 of them turn up. The gulf between the roll and the roll-up. Now we at St Thomas’s, we are trying to bring the gulf together of the roll and the roll-up. We are praying for that. But why is it that people come every third week, or fourth week, or fifth week? Well, because for them, it is a human activity. Do I feel like it? Am I free? It’s a human activity. But when it’s a divine activity when the Lord adds you to His people, and you do believe, and you do want to fellowship with His people and learn from His Word and His people, then, of course, that shows itself in that regular fellowship.
It’s a very serious thing. It’s a very wonderful thing to join the people of God. And in Chapter 5, Verse 14, He added to the Church. And in Chapter 5, Verse 16, He spread the influence around, even the towns around Jerusalem, started to discover the power of the Lord Jesus. So God continues to spread the Word. He continues to spread His name. We have the wonderful privilege of belonging to Him, and then we have the responsibility of being like Him, and then we have the huge honour of being used by Him. And may God help the people in this building, and those who hear this message, to belong to Him and behold Him and then, in His providence, really be useful.
Let’s bow our heads. Let’s pray. Our gracious God, we thank You for this morning as we think about this Word… we thank You as we see an imperfect Church, which we have a wonderful Saviour in the Lord Jesus. We thank You, that as we think about the spiritual battle, that we have a wonderful Captain in the Lord Jesus. We thank You, that as we think about the Judgement to come, we have One, who is a refuge and a deliverer from the Judgement to come, in the Lord Jesus. And we thank You, as we think about the mission task and the spread of the Word and we are so weak, and we are so feeble, and we don’t know how to do it, we thank You that we have One who is the Lord of the harvest and who is the builder of the Church. And so we pray that You would help us to be faithful. We pray that You would be honoured in our midst and widely. And we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.