The spiritual bliss depicted by the first four chapters of Acts was not disrupted by persecution from man or devil, but by the sin of its members.
As selfless as the saints at Jerusalem were, there was an exception: Ananias and Sapphira. Their sin was spawned by the seeds of greed and deceit. It is to the book of Acts what Achan’s sin is to the book of Joshua. Both were deceitful, miserly, selfish acts that interrupted the victorious progress of God’s people and brought sin into the camp at the height of great triumph.
The saints in Jerusalem were giving out of a Spirit-filled heart. Ananias’s sin revealed a Satan-filled heart (Acts 5:3). The contrast between the end of the fourth chapter and the beginning of the fifth could hardly be more dramatic:
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.” And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1–11)
Ananias’s name means “the Lord is gracious”; Sapphira means “beautiful.” Their deed was anything but gracious or beautiful. Seeing that others were selling property and giving the money to the apostles, they pledged to do the same. Verse 2 tells us, however, that when the time came to give, they “kept back some of the price.” It is clear that both of them were in on the plot.
The Leaven of the Pharisees
What was their motive? They wanted a little spiritual prestige. They wanted to appear to be giving sacrificially, yet keep some of the money for themselves. That suggests they loved money. And, as Paul told Timothy, “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Here were two characters so tainted with the love of money that they were willing to conspire together to commit public hypocrisy. They sold their land, but they gave only a portion to the Lord under the pretense that it was the whole price. They must have thought they could gain spiritual esteem and some cash through the charade. Their sin was not that they did not give everything. There was no divine requirement that they give everything.
The sin was their lie.
Now let’s be honest. This kind of hypocrisy is not a particularly uncommon sin. Lots of people give money under false pretenses. It’s like the Pharisees who had someone blow a trumpet in the synagogues and streets when they gave alms, so that everyone would notice (Matthew 6:2).
Jesus says of such people, “they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). They want people to see their show of good works. They seek glory from people, not from God, so the human recognition is the only reward they will ever get. This sin may seem petty to us, but not to God. God hates hypocrisy and feigned holiness. Jesus called it “the leaven of the Pharisees” (Luke 12:1).
Now this leaven was threatening to infect the infant church, but God would deal with it harshly, signaling to everyone the seriousness of life in the church.
Peter, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, saw through their hypocrisy. Imagine the shock that hit Ananias! He came before the apostles, laid his money at their feet, and smugly told them it was all the money he got from selling his property. He probably assumed that they were looking at him as a spiritual example, a generous and godly man.
Suddenly Peter said to him, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3)—a rather confrontive thing to say in a church service.
In many churches Ananias would have received the approval he sought, no matter what his motives. A pragmatic church leader might reason, “After all, this is a substantial sum of money. OK, his motives aren’t pure, but hey, he’s not a bad guy, and we can use the money. We can’t embarrass him in front of all the people. If we do that, we’ll never get another dime from him.”
Not Peter. He confronted the sin directly. “Why has Satan filled your heart?” Notice that Peter was putting the blame on Ananias, not Satan. “Why?” he asked. Then again in verse 4: “Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart?”
Peter made clear that the sin was Ananias’s hypocrisy, not his keeping half the money: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (v. 4). He could have done whatever he wanted with the money. He could have kept his land. There was no requirement for him to do otherwise. It would not have been sinful if Ananias had said, “I sold my property, and here is part of the money.” He had every right to give as much or as little as he wanted. But he sinned by claiming he was giving everything when he had actually kept some for himself.
God’s response to the situation was immediate, severe, and final. He struck Ananias dead on the spot. “As he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last” (Acts 5:5). This was a judicial act of the Most Holy God—right in front of the entire church.
User-friendly? Hardly. In fact, the effect was that “great fear came over all who heard of it” (v. 5). God made Ananias an example to others who might be tempted to trifle with Him and taint the purity of the church.
Does God always judge sin this way? Obviously not, but like Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), Korah (Numbers 16), Achan (Joshua 7), Herod (Acts 12), and others throughout Scripture, Ananias was immediately judged for his sin and paid with his life. God sovereignly chose to strike him dead. He thus became an example to all. The truth is, God could judge every sin this way. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It is only because of the Lord’s infinite mercy that we are not all consumed (Lamentations 3:22, NKJV). Sometimes God does judge sin with physical death. Paul wrote that God was actually judging the Corinthians who were defiling the Lord’s Table by making them physically ill, and some were even dying (1 Corinthians 11:29–30).
With Ananias, however, there was no illness, no time lapse. He dropped dead on the spot. God’s judgment was swift and terrifying.
Sapphira was oblivious to her husband’s fate, perhaps thinking she would make a grand entrance. Scripture says,
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.” And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. (Acts 5:6–10).
She deliberately lied to the Holy Spirit, proving that she and her husband had conspired together to commit a premeditated act of hypocrisy. Peter was as direct as he had been with Ananias, and she immediately met the same fate as her husband.
Judgment Must Begin at the House of God
God is serious about the purity of the church. This was an early and unforgettable lesson about how God views sin among the fellowship of believers. In essence, God was saying, “I am not playing church. I will not trifle with sinners. I am not interested in user-friendliness. I desire righteousness, truth, and sincere hearts.” He thus served notice that He is deadly serious. The church is no social gig.
What was the result of this episode? Again, “Great fear came over the whole church” (Acts 5:11). You can be certain there was a lot of careful self-examination going on in the Jerusalem church that day—and that was the point. God was purifying His church. He wanted His people to take sin seriously and fear Him.
The church meets to worship God, and that demands the confrontation of sin. Here the Lord gives us the very basic model for the church’s meeting—sin is dealt with fiercely. The issue is not what unbelievers think about such severity; it is what God thinks about such iniquity.
Surely in first-century Jerusalem there were a lot more contemptible sinners than Ananias and Sapphira. But as Peter wrote, “It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). God judges His own people before He turns His wrath on pagans.
Can the church avoid God’s judgment? Yes, but only by purifying herself. After warning the Corinthians that God was already judging sinning church members with sickness and death, Paul told them, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31). In other words, it is the job of faithful church members to maintain the church’s purity. Frankly, this is a far more powerful word to unbelievers than some bland and light-hearted talk intended to make them feel welcome and accepted. This lets the unbeliever know that the church is not for unrepentant sinners but for the redeemed ones who love righteousness.
We maintain purity by following the process Jesus outlined in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17, emphases added). Church discipline may not seem like a very user-friendly concept, but it is God’s design to purify the church and to protect her from judgment. Paul wrote, “When we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).
Jesus went on to say, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Remember, in this context our Lord was describing how to deal with sin in the fellowship. The point is that Christ carries out His own will in the church through the discipline process. “I am there in their midst” means He personally works in and through believers to purify His church as they follow the steps He outlined. The effect is that repentant believers are restored, and hardhearted sinners are exposed and ousted from the fellowship. If we don’t follow this process and keep the church pure, He will intervene in judgment (1 Corinthians 11:30).
Knowing the Terror of the Lord, We Persuade Men
Here is the salient point for this series: God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira had an effect beyond the fellowship of believers: “Great fear came over . . . all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). Verse 13 says unbelievers did not dare associate with them! This is precisely the opposite of the user-friendly philosophy that is so popular today. Instead of luring people to church by making them feel comfortable and secure, God used fear to keep unbelievers away.
The fear of God was a central doctrine in the early church, as in the Old Testament. Unbelievers and believers alike were taught to fear Him. None but a rank fool would deal frivolously with God. It was that very fear that drew people for salvation and kept them obedient. Salvation doesn’t come from wanting to join the fun and end emotional pain—it comes when the heart cries out for deliverance from sin!
The contemporary user-friendly movement aims for just the opposite. Rather than arousing fear of God, it attempts to portray Him as fun, jovial, easygoing, lenient, and even permissive. Haughty sinners who ought to approach God in terror (cf. Luke 18:13) are emboldened to presume on His grace. Sinners hear nothing of divine wrath. This is as wrong as preaching rank heresy.
As we learn from the account of Ananias and Sapphira, God’s wrath is not to be taken lightly. Peter wrote, “If [judgment] begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). Paul spoke of divine wrath as one of the primary motivations for evangelism: “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
Where Is User-Friendliness Taking the Church?
The user-friendly philosophy has made for a sharp turn down a wrong road for the church. The downgrading of worship, Scripture, and theology, as always, has ushered in serious doctrinal compromise. In fact, for decades now, Christian leaders who identify themselves as evangelical have questioned and rejected cardinal doctrines such as hell and human depravity.
One doctrine that is always in the crosshairs of user-friendly churches is that of everlasting punishment. The denial of this doctrine has come in different forms such as “conditional immortality,” or annihilationism. These heretical ideas assert that unredeemed sinners are simply eradicated rather than spending eternity in hell. A perfect fit for the user-friendly philosophy, this view teaches that a merciful God could not possibly consign created beings to eternal torment. Instead, He obliterates them completely.
Attacking “conditional immorality” in his own day, Spurgeon said that those who deny the eternality of hell “have pretty nearly obliterated the hope of such a heaven as we have all along expected. Of course, the reward of the righteous is to be of no longer continuance than the punishment of the wicked. Both are described as ‘everlasting’ in the same verse [Matthew 25:46], spoken by the same sacred lips; and as the ‘punishment’ is made out to be only ‘age-lasting,’ so must the ‘life’ be.”C. H. Spurgeon, “Progressive Theology,” The Sword and the Trowel (1888), 158.
Scripture says, “The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). The most prolific teacher on hell in all of Scripture was the Lord Jesus Himself. He said, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47–48). And Revelation 14:11 describes the eternal state of those who follow Antichrist in the Tribulation: “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Preaching that downplays God’s wrath does not enhance evangelism; it undermines it. The urgency of the gospel is utterly lost when the preacher denies the reality or severity of everlasting punishment. The authority of Scripture is compromised when so much of Christ’s clear message must be denied or explained away. The seriousness of sin is depreciated by this teaching—and therefore the gospel itself is subverted.
Too many who have embraced the user-friendly trend have not carefully pondered how user-friendliness is incompatible with biblical truth. It is, at its heart, a pragmatic, not a biblical, outlook. It is based on precisely the kind of thinking that is eating away at the heart of orthodox doctrine. It is leading evangelicalism into neo-modernism and putting churches in the fast lane on the down-grade.
The answer, of course, is not an unfriendly church, but a vibrant, loving, honest, committed, worshiping fellowship of believers who minister to one another like the church in Acts chapter 4—but who eschew sin, keep one another accountable, and boldly proclaim the full truth of Scripture. People who have no love for the things of God may not find such a place very user-friendly. But God’s blessing will be on the fellowship of true believers, because that is what He ordained the church to be like. And He will add to the church, as He promised.
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel.)