Sinister Attempts to Stop the Unstoppable
Topic: Holy Spirit Passage: Acts 4:32–5:16
10 years ago I received an email from a friend that had a curious attachment in it. The e-mail message simply said “check this out!” with a smiley, wink face. Now this friend is a pastor who I trust and respect so I was ready to open the attachment, but something about the e-mail and the description of the attachment made me suspicious – it didn’t sound like anything my friend would send. I didn’t open it and not long after I found out it was my first experience with a Trojan horse virus.
Trojan viruses disguise themselves as legitimate and desirable applications that the unsuspecting person downloads, often by opening an e-mail attachment, which then opens up their computers to whatever mischief the Trojan is designed to wreak, often giving the attacker a high level of control over your computer. Named after the famous “Trojan horse” of Greek mythology, Trojan viruses are enemies disguised as friends.
We are in a series on the book of Acts that we’ve called Mission Unstoppable. Acts describes the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the unstoppable growth of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit and so far we’ve seen the church explode with unstoppable power and grace and blessing and favor.
But unstoppable doesn’t mean unopposed. I’ve mentioned how Acts records God’s power and salvation through Christ unstoppably advancing in ever widening circles to the ends of the earth. Acts also records the opposition to the unstoppable gospel that rises up against the church almost immediately. Last week we saw the first signs of opposition as the Sanhedrin arrested Peter and John and threatened them not to speak in the name of Jesus ever again. Their threats didn’t work as Peter and John told the Sanhedrin they must obey God rather than man and continued to speak the word of God boldly. This was the first attack on the church, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The Bible tells us that the ultimate source of opposition to the church isn’t man, but Satan. The Apostle Paul writes in Eph 6:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephes. 6:12 (ESV)
Through the Sanhedrin, Satan tried to stop the message of Christ through threats, but when that didn’t work, Satan tried a more subtle way of attacking the church, this time not from without, but from within.
Luke sets the context for the attack in 4:32-37.
What we’re seeing here isn’t some form of primitive communism – there was no compulsion to contribute everything to a giant kitty where it was then redistributed, nor was there any prohibition against owning property. What there was in the early church was a joyful generosity and care for one another that was expressed in sacrificial giving and sharing.
As an expression of faith and generosity, many people began selling their land or homes and giving all the money to the apostles who would then distribute as there was legitimate need. One guy who did this was a man named Joseph, nicknamed Barnabas because he was such an encouraging guy. Barnabas will become the partner of Saul in just a little while, so we’ll see him again. But he was one of those who sold a field and brought the money and laid it at the apostle’s feet.
So that’s the context…let’s read on. Read 5:1-10
I. Opening the Trojan virus: all the appearance of devotion, none of the cost
As we read this it might seem like Ananias and Sapphira’s punishment didn’t fit the crime. OK, they didn’t put all the money from their house sale in, but they put some of it in; don’t they get any credit for that? Does that really deserve capital punishment?
The problem isn’t how much money they put in. As Peter points out, the house belonged to them – they didn’t need to sell it at all. It wasn’t expected of them, it was their choice. And, when they sold it, the money was theirs to do with whatever they wanted. They could have kept it all, or just given a small portion. The money was entirely theirs to do with as they pleased.
The problem wasn’t the money; the problem was what was going on in their hearts. Consider what’s going on at this point: the church is growing, God is moving, great things are happening, and what began with 120 believers now has thousands and thousands of believers and that number is being added to every day. Ananias and Sapphira are watching all this and they see something else. As Barnabas joyfully sells his house and lays everything at the apostles feet, he is admired and looked up to as a generous and faith-filled man. In this dynamic, growing, happening church, Barnabas gains a reputation as a man who is laying it all on the line, a man who is truly abandoned to Jesus.
And Ananias and Sapphira saw all this and they wanted the same reputation. They wanted the admiration, they wanted the applause. They wanted to be pointed out by the crowds as a man and woman of faith. Wanted to be looked up to. They wanted to be somebody in this growing, dynamic church. Pride gripped their hearts.
Satan is a strategic enemy and he knows how to exploit our sin for his purposes. And so Satan sent Ananias and Sapphira a Trojan virus with a subject line that said, “Check this out! You can have all the reputation at a fraction of the cost. You can have the name of being fully abandoned to Christ, laying it all on the line, giving it all away, without having to actually give it all away.” And Ananias and Sapphira opened the attachment. They conspired together to make a big show of selling their property and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, while keeping back part.
The ironic tragedy was that in a church that is “filled with the Spirit”, Peter discerns that Ananias’ heart has been filled with Satan. That’s how serious this pride and envy are. And the devil’s goals are more ambitious than just harming Ananias and Sapphira; it was an attack on the church. His plan was a Trojan horse plan: if he couldn’t destroy the church from the outside, he would try to get someone inside to open up the gate. The early church was filled with genuine abandon to Christ and the blessing of God was on them. With hearts filled with faith, the first believers genuinely loved God and each other. Through Ananias and Sapphira, Satan was trying to open the church gates from the inside to corrupt this genuine faith and devotion with a pride-filled, hypocritical imitation of genuine faith and devotion. As John Stott puts it, “falsehood ruins fellowship” and the leaven of their hypocrisy would have multiplied throughout the church. God was showing the church a severe mercy by judging this couple’s sin so quickly and so severely. He was protecting His newborn church.
Satan’s tactics hasn’t changed
Satan still sends Trojan horse viruses – we need to be careful what we open our hearts to. The church is far more likely to fall to falsehood than it is to force. Churches that would thrive while under attack from the outside can be eaten up from within by pride, division, hypocrisy, and a lust for power and reputation.
The antidote isn’t to be perfect – none of us can be perfect – the antidote is to walk in the light. Ananias and Sapphira were walking in the darkness of hypocrisy and pride. The whole thing was built on the darkness of deception. In the foolishness of their hearts they thought only they would know, but they left God out of the equation. That’s why Peter says they did not lie to men, they lied to God. The Apostle John might have remembered Ananias & Sapphira when he wrote:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:5-9
The light isn’t being perfect. It’s being genuine. It’s confessing sin humbly to God when we are convicted of it rather than holding it back, hiding it from view, lying to man and God. And when we do confess it to God, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
There’s a common saying, if you think the church is full of hypocrites, come on in, there’s room for one more. I don’t like that saying. The church is full of sinners saved by grace, and of course we won’t be exempt from all hypocrisy, but the word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for an actor. Someone who pretends to be what he or she is not. Like Ananias and Sapphira pretended to be wholly devoted to Christ when they weren’t at all. As Christians, if we want God’s blessing, His grace, His manifest presence among us, we should strive to be genuine and sincere and without guile.
ILL: the other morning Matthew was downstairs working out with Janice, and he came up for a glass of water. He said to me, dad, feel free to come exercise with us. I told him, actually, I’ve already been to the Y and worked out. He turns to me really seriously and says, “You know, Dad, you’re going to have to be honest with yourself, because you get up so early we won’t know if you really worked out or not.”
We need to be honest with ourselves about the things that others wouldn’t know. The stuff that goes on in our hearts. Do we regularly seek to allow the light of God’s word penetrate our hearts and expose what’s really in there? If Ananias and Sapphira had only confessed and repented of their sinful desire instead of acting on it – their story would have been very different. The light of God’s word can bring healing wounds if we are willing to be honest with ourselves (just between you and the God who sees). Hypocrisy has many shapes, but here are a few questions we can honestly ask ourselves:
Are we more concerned about reputation than reality? Do we care more about what people think of us than we care about what we really are? Do we take pride in our reputation as a (you fill in the blank – hard worker, morally upright person, great parent, successful businessman, smart kid…)? Do we try to be all things to all men, the chameleon who is ever changing shape and color to fit the taste of the crowd we’re with?
We need to be convinced that the praise of men is empty and deceitful if not based on reality. England's Prince Philip was toasted at a banquet once with two lines from the poet John Dryden:
A man so various that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome.
The prince was so flattered by the toast that he looked up the rest of the poem. The poem didn’t seem so flattering when he learned the rest of the story:
A man so various that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome.
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.
We would be wise to remember that if we seek praise that is not deserved – like Ananias and Sapphira –one day it will be proven to be empty praise when the rest of the story is told.
II. God’s blessing on the church (5:11-16)
The effect of God keeping the church pure from the poison of Ananias and Sapphira’s hypocrisy and deception is first of all fear. Verse 11 is the first time in Acts that the word “church” is used. Their sin wasn’t just between them and God, it was against the church and God’s divine judgment against them fills the church with fear. Not a terror-filled fear, but a purifying fear. They were reminded to be careful to walk in the light.
The other effect is that it positions the church for continued blessing and power. They are unified (vs. 12 – all together). The apostles are performing miracles that demonstrate God’s presence with them. And there are two reactions from the crowds:
• People are afraid to join them. They hold them in high esteem, but no one wants to join the church lightly. People know that God is real and not to be trifled with. There is a fear of God that prevents people from fooling around with God. That’s a good thing, church, when it’s combined with the second reaction.
• More than ever believers were added to the Lord – multitudes of men and women. God was pressing many, many precious souls with the reality of Jesus Christ and the unstoppable message was growing and advancing to the salvation of multitudes.
There is a lesson for us. If we want to see God’s blessing and power in the church, we need to guard our purity and genuineness and humility.
We need to walk in the light. We need to be honest with ourselves. God sees it all – to play act is a functional form of atheism, as if there were no God, and all this was just a show. God calls us to confess our sin, and allow the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to search our hearts and reveal pride and hypocrisy. Not to condemn us in it, but to forgive us and cleanse us from it. How sweet is the forgiveness of Christ!