Last night millions of viewers watched part 4 of the A.D. miniseries on NBC. We are seeing the tumultuous beginnings of the Jesus movement following his resurrection. Cowardly followers have become bold witnesses. The Holy Spirit inspires boldness in the face of opposition. The miracles that Jesus once wrought are now happening through his followers, and the movement has grown to over 3,000 people in the first couple months.
This episode we watched one of the most disturbing accounts in the Book of Acts unfold in dramatic form: the sudden divine judgment and deaths of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Here’s the biblical account from Acts 5:
5 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!”
5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things.
This is intense. Why such quick and harsh punishment? What was their sin about? Greed? Holding back money from the church? (An ancient precursor to televangelists using scare tactics to get people’s money in their pockets?) Or was it about deceit and hypocrisy in the new fellowship? Or a more general lack of trust in God and his movement succeeding?
I strongly believe this is NOT primarily a story about money and greed. The focus of the text is repeatedly on lying and testing the Spirit of God:
“Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?
“why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds…”
You have not lied to people but to God!”
Here’s a few thoughts on why God was so swift and severe in his judgment in this instance.
- Let’s admit we cannot smooth this story over and make it more palatable to people who won’t admit the basic right of a Holy God to judge sin. The God of boundless love and grace is also the God of wrath and judgment. He is both loving and holy. He is both the God of Calvary and Sinai. He gave his only Son out of love and took the first born sons of Egypt in divine judgement. He gives birth to the early church in a series of exciting miracles and will prune that same church with terrifying judgments. This episode is fittingly called “The Wrath.”
- The early church is God’s rescue operation to save a world co-opted by Satan and trapped in a web of lies about God, ourselves, and how to live peaceably together. If the church is to be God’s “new humanity” emerging in the midst of the old, a countercultural community “full of grace and truth” and called to bring transparent love and unity to a world of fractured disunity, then any presence of deceit, dishonesty, selfish plotting, secret scheming must be rooted out immediately. Such darkness is the antithesis of the light of which the community is made.
- As a church planter and pioneer of a new movement myself, I thought the show did a good job of drawing our attention to the lack of faith their “holding out on God” displayed. The success of any new movement requires full commitment, a willingness to be “all in” with no escape plans or exit clauses secretly in place. In the episode, we first see Ananias and Sapphira having an understandable conversation that goes something like:
Ananias: Are you sure? Are you certain you want to give everything?
Sapphira: Well that’s the deal. And if what they say is true, that the kingdom of God is coming….
A: Yes, if it’s true.
S: But, if it’s true don’t you want to be part of it? And away from all the corruption and misery out there?
A: Forgive me, I want to believe. I truly do. But I just think we should try to be cautious.
You sense Ananias’ lack of faith in the movement, and therefore in God himself. He wants to have his cake and eat it to. He wants to trust God a little, but not willing to give up everything to follow Him. He wants to keep enough in his bank account in case God doesn’t come through on his promises.
Then the A.D. writers brilliantly bring out this half-in, half-out attitude when Peter confronts Sapphira:
Peter: “Sapphira, please speak truthfully. When you and your husband sold your house, did you keep anything back for yourselves?
Sapphira: We did not.
P: You’re lying, I know you held it back. The Holy Spirit told me so.
S: Maybe a little bit. What does it matter? We donated a huge amount and happily so.
P: It matters because you bet against our mission succeeding. You bet against God. How can you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?
S: It was not malicious in any way. We were simply being prudent!”
I think this gets to the heart of the matter, and is a disturbing indictment of all the varieties of half-committed Christianities afoot today — especially in the West. We giving some of ourselves but still holding back. We think we are being prudent when we are really betting against God’s mission succeeding and doubting that his promises will prove true.
As one commentary concludes:
“The message of this for Christian and non-Christian alike is self-evident. Christians must realize that the selfless, transparent fellowship of the church must never be violated by selfish hypocrisy. Further, it is proper to employ discipline to guard the church’s integrity, unity and purity. For the non-Christian, this account is a warning: Think twice before joining this holy fellowship. Are you willing to pay the price—fully renouncing wicked ways and full-heartedly embracing Christ and other believers in his body, the church?” (IVP New Testament Commentary)
Let’s remember that Jesus was no less resolute and intense in his demands:
“So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33).
I can’t help but wonder if the church today began to take our mission as seriously as the early church (and apparently God) did, then maybe we would start to have the kind of world impact they had. Just a thought. I also wonder why God is so willing to overlook our comparatively low level of commitment…especially as the average “Christian” today only manages to attend a worship service 3 out of 8 Sundays…. Giving God and his mission just one hour a week is pathetic enough…and we can’t even manage that!
Anyone want to raise the bar with me? I think we can do better. Our fore bearers who endured so much and gave their very lives for the cause deserve better. Our crucified Savior deserves better.