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Monday, January 23, 2012

Pretense and Fear

Pretense and Fear

"A man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet." Acts 5:1-2

The names of the man and woman in this story communicate happiness and wealth:

ANANIAS: Ananias (name of three Israelites); from Hebrew, hananyahu (Jah has favored); from hanan (to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favor, bestow or implore) and yah (Jah, the sacred name, shortened from Yehovah, the self-Existent or Eternal)

SAPPHIRA: Sapphire (an Israelitess); from sapphiros (a "sapphire" or lapis-lazuli gem; from Hebrew, sappir (a gem, probably the sapphire, used for scratching other substances); from sapar (to score with a mark as a tally or record, to inscribe, enumerate, recount or celebrate)

From birth, Ananias enjoyed the influence of a name that meant "favored by God". The Hebrew root of his name appears many times in the Bible, translated as mercy, gracious, or favor. To be blessed by God means to enjoy His mercy and undeserved gifts of grace.

Sapphira's name meant the precious gem, the sapphire. We can imagine her fascination with jewelry and beautiful clothing.

These names provide a perfect introduction to this story. Sir Blessed and his wife, Madam Sapphire, owned extensive properties. They saw Christians gathering together in a single, vibrant community, sharing all that they had with each other. Countless wealthy believers sold their land or houses to provide support for the needy families. The spirit of love and generosity captured the hearts of Anania and Sapphira, and they sold a piece of property.

As they counted the proceeds, they realized the cost of generosity. Together they agreed to keep back part of the wealth and give only a portion to the needy. However, they also agreed to keep secret the total amount gained by the sale of their property. They would give a part of the proceeds to the needy Christians, publicly declaring it to be all of the money gained.

Why would they lie? Why would they publicly declare to be giving all of their money, when in fact they would be keeping back a portion for themselves? Did the leaders of the Christian community require all proceeds be given?

By the Holy Spirit, Peter knew of the lie. Peter's confrontation with Ananias and Sapphira gave no evidence that it was mandatory for the wealthy to give all their money to the poor:

"While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?" Acts 5:4 (ESV)

Peter confirmed that the wealthy Christians were free to keep all or part of what they sold. Spirit-led generosity is always from a cheerful heart, with no mandate for a certain amount.

What would Ananias and Sapphira gain by pretending to be giving all that they had?

Fame.

By outgiving all others, Ananias and Sapphira would attract more attention, gaining fame and status within the Christian community. They desired to be made much of, and they intended to portray themselves as the most generous givers of all.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How do you decide what to give to others? How do you keep from succumbing to the natural human desire to be made much of?

Peter's rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira was based upon their dishonesty, not their failure to give all they had. Peter did not expect anyone to give everything, or anything. They could have kept all of their wealth and Peter would not have said a word against them.

"Peter said, - 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? 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 men but to God." Acts 5:3-4 (ESV)

Ananias and Sapphira conspired to lie to the Christian community, acting as if they had given all of their wealth for the sake of Christ. But Peter rebuked them for lying to the Holy Spirit of God, rather than to men. Even more, Peter accused Satan of providing the motivating force for the lie.

SATAN: satanas (the accuser, the devil); from Hebrew: satan (an opponent, especially Satan, the arch-enemy of good); from satan (to attack or accuse)

FILLED: pleroo (to make replete, to cram a net or level up a hollow, to furnish, satisfy or finish; from pleres (replete or covered over, to make complete); from pimplemi (to fill or fulfil)

Satan is opposed to all that is good, attacking God and all that God created to be good. The foundation of Satan's attacks are to falsely accuse others of evil. Satan manipulates situations and twists truth in order to draw others into evil, thus providing Satan with evidence of their badness. Satan uses the heart of a person as container for desires, filling them with the desire to do bad, motivating them to act upon those bad desires, providing evidence with which he can accuse them of being bad.

Satan attacked Jesus in this way:

"The tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread...the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, - He will command his angels concerning you - and - On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone...Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Matthew 4:3-9 (ESV)

Satan began his attack by bringing Jesus into circumstance which provided opportunity for sin. Surrounding Jesus with the sight, smell and sound of wealth and power, Satan attempted to fill his heart with the desire for evil, expecting to motivate Jesus to act upon those desires.

In each circumstance Jesus placed God at the center of the conflict. Jesus saw each attack of Satan as a temptation to dishonor or ignore God.

A startling instance of Satan's attack of Jesus came through Peter himself:

"Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, - Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you. - But he turned and said to Peter, - Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." Matthew 16:21-23 (ESV)

Peter rebuked Jesus, and Jesus regarded that rebuke as a direct attack from Satan. Notice that Jesus said the goal of Satan was to be a "hindrance", and again, the central issue for Jesus was God.

Satan attacks by persuading others to dishonor or ignore God.

This is why Peter rebuked Ananias and Sapphira for lying to God. The deception of acting as if they were giving all of their wealth for the sake of Christ, at its core, was an attempt to hide something from an all-seeing, all-knowing, sovereign God. It is as if Ananias and Sapphira temporarily forgot Who God was, regarding Him as fallible and unable to discover their lie.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what sense is every sin an insult to God? Is it reasonable to regard every temptation as a threat to God's honor?

Ananias died when he heard Peter's rebuke.

"When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him." Acts 5:5-6 (ESV)

All who heard of the death of Anaias felt great fear.

FEAR: phobos (alarm or fright); from phebomai (to be put in fear)

This is a common Greek word for fear. The disciples cried out for fear at the sight of a Jesus walking on the sea, taking Him for a spirit (Matthew 14:26). The Roman guards trembled with fear during the earthquake and appearance of an angel at the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 28:4). The miraculous healing of a a dead man, the only son of a widow, seized a great crowd with fear, causing them to glorify God for visiting His people and sending a great prophet (Luke 7:16).

Paul the Apostle rebuked Jews and Greeks who felt no fear of God:

"All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." Romans 3:12-18 (ESV)

Yet, Paul encouraged believers to resist falling into fear:

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!" Romans 8:14-15 (ESV)

Fear can be for good or for ill. It can come upon us by surprise, from something unexpected, whether good or ill. We've all been startled by someone we trust, suddenly appearing from a doorway or behind us. Fear can also come through lack of understanding, or lack of faith. Fear can cause us to faint or hide, and fear can cause us to rejoice and sing.

It is too simplistic to regard fear as always bad or always good.

A better way to respond to personal fear is to place God in the center, focusing on what is true. The truth may be fearful, but genuine, truthful fear, beginning with God at the center, is the only way to be rightly related to Our Creator:

"Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God." 2 Cor 7:1 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Look at the passage immediately before this verse: 2 Corinthians 6:16-18. Upon what promises can we bring holiness to completion in the fear of God?

  • We are the temple of the living God.
  • God will make His dwelling among us.
  • God will walk among us.
  • God will will be our God.
  • We shall be God's people.
  • God will welcome us.
  • God will be a father to us.
  • We shall be sons and daughter to God.

Paul places the responsibility for holiness upon us. He calls us to "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit." This seems contradictory. Aren't we to trust in the undeserved mercy and grace of God in Christ's propitiation by blood for our sin?

"By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph 2:8-9 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How does our ability to cleanse ourselves work together with God's gift of salvation through grace alone?

"After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, - Tell me whether you sold the land for so much. - And she said, - Yes, for so much. - But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out. - Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things." Acts 5:7-11 (ESV)

Ananias and Sapphira both died suddenly at the realization that God had seen their secret sin. Great fear came upon the entire Christian community, near and far.

This is a remarkable story. Luke gives no indication that anything similar happened again. It seems to be an undeniable instance of supernatural power, the discovery of secret sin causing immediate death. No wonder the great fear!

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What purpose would God have in carrying out such swift justice, but only that one time? Surely Christians have lied to the Holy Spirit since then - why do we not often hear of them suddenly falling down dead?

Image provided by Cat Sacdalan, www.behance.net/annthrop, Creative Commons License.