"Dropping Dead in Church"
(Delivered Sunday, October 22, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
God demands that personal holiness characterize His people when they come before Him. And He has communicated that demand in some pretty startling ways.
Take, for instance, the story the two sons of Aaron. God had delivered the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt; and then graciously covenanted Himself to them as their God and called them to be His people. He gave them instructions for the construction of His tabernacle; and then consecrated Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. But as soon as the worship in the tabernacle began, Aaron's two sons—Nadab and Abihu—disobeyed God greatly. They put incense into censers at a time when God did not call for incense, and sought to offer a “profane fire” before the Lord. They disregarded His instructions, and sought to worship Him in their own willful way. And as a result, fire went out from the Lord and devoured them; and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Immediately afterwards, God's verdict on the matter was expressed in these words: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (v. 3). It may have seemed like a small thing in the eyes of man—to offer an offering of incense to God in a different way and at a different time than He commanded. But it is most definitely not a small thing at all to God when He is dishonored by His people. He made that point quite clearly in the case of Nadab and Abihu; and as the people saw the bodies of the sons of Aaron—charred and smoking before the altar of God—you can be very sure that they got the point!
Or take the case of Achin during the time of Joshua. God had given the people of Israel one victory after another as they—at last—began to enter in and claim the land that God had given to them. God demonstrated the greatness of His power by causing the walls of the great city Jericho to fall before the armies of Israel. He gave that great and powerful city into their hands, and commanded them to destroy it completely. But He also warned them not to take any of the things out of that city for themselves. All the silver and gold, and all the vessels of bronze and iron, were to be consecrated to the Lord. And yet, one man disobeyed.
This man Achin took from among the items dedicated to destruction a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold; and he hid them in his tent. As a result, the Bible tells us that “the anger of the Lord burned against the children of Israel” (Joshua 7:1)—not just against that one man, but against the whole nation! In the eyes of men, it may have seemed like a very small crime. Who would have missed these rather small things compared to the riches of the entire city of Jericho? But as a result of this one man's sin, God removed His hand of blessing from Israel. Thirty-six men lost their lives in battle because of him (v. 5); and He told Joshua that He would not be with the nation anymore until the accursed items that Achin hid were taken away from their midst. Achin's sin was uncovered, and he himself put to death. And the people of Israel learned once again that God means what He says about holiness in the lives of His people!
Or as another example, take a man named Uzzah. In the time of King David, the decision was made to bring the ark of the covenant from Kirjath Jearim to the city of Jerusalem. David arranged a great parade of thirty thousand of the most choice men of Israel to accompany the ark; and a host of musicians with all kinds of instruments played music as they ark was taken along—King David himself leading the band. They even arranged for a brand new cart, drawn by oxen, to carry the ark; and two of David's choicest men—Uzzah and Ahio—drove the cart along personally. It was a moment of great fanfare and celebration.
The trouble was that it was also a great act of disobedience. God had very specifically commanded that the ark be carried by the hands of the Levites. He never said that it may be carried on an ox cart! And as the oxen pulled the cart along, one of the animals stumbled; causing the cart carrying the ark to rock and shake. Uzzah put his hand out to steady the ark. And from the eyes of men, what a noble act that would have appeared to be! But the Bible tells us that the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah for daring to touch the ark—and He struck the man dead on the spot; right there, before the ark of God (2 Samuel 6:6-7). The parade came to a shocking halt; and once again, God communicated that He means what He says about holiness on the part of His people.
Two things impress me about these kinds of stories. First, they occur at a time, it seems to me, when God was allowing a new thing to be established. It may have been at the beginning of worship in the tabernacle, or at the entry into the promised land, or as the ark was being established in Jerusalem; but it was a new thing that was happening. And I believe God wanted, at the beginning of that new thing, to make it very clear that He demanded holiness in His people.
And second, they involve a sin that might have seemed small and harmless in the sight of men. If men were making the rules about holiness, they never would have called it a great “sin”—worthy of the divine administration of the death-penalty upon the sinner—if men merely offered incense before God at an unusual time, or if they kept a little bit of booty in battle, or if they sought to do something so noble as to reach out the hand and steady the ark of the covenant from falling off the cart. But it was through these seemingly small things that God established that He is an unspeakably holy God; and that He is uncompromising in the standard of holiness He expects in His people.
This morning, I ask you to turn to the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts. It's there that we find another such story. It's a story that involves the beginning of a new work of God—that is, the church of Jesus Christ on earth. It also involves a sin that would seem, in the sight of men, to be a small thing. But it establishes to us that God, after all those years, still had not compromised His standard of personal holiness on the part of His people when they gather together before Him. It was true in the time of the old covenant; and it is true now in the time of the new covenant—even when His people gather together in His church to worship Him as we are doing today!
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To fully appreciate this story, we need to look at what preceded it. The Lord Jesus had been raised from the dead, and had ascended to the Father. And the Holy Spirit had been given and was moving upon the people of God in powerful ways. People were witnessing to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; “and great grace”, the Bible tells us, “was upon them all”. All the Christians were loving one another; and with one heart and soul, they didn't consider that the things they possessed were their own, but willingly sold lands and houses, and brought the proceeds to the feet of the apostles to be distributed to the poor and needy among them. What a witness it would be to the Lord Jesus Christ if the world saw us doing such things today!
We're told that the grace of God was demonstrated in a marvelous way in the life of a man named Joses. He came, later, to be known as Barnabas, “the Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36); and he later became a great leader in the church. The Bible tells us that this man Barnabas, “a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostle's feet” (v. 37). There was no self-centered “show” in this. He just felt moved by the Spirit of God to make this personal sacrifice; and humbly brought the money before the apostles. But it must have somehow became known; and everyone was deeply moved by the level of sacrificial love it involved.
Now, there was a particular married couple in the church—Ananias and Sapphira by name; and they saw this great act and, I believe, were also greatly moved by it. They were even inspired by it to also sell a piece of land that they owned, and bring a portion of the proceeds to the apostles. What a noble act! What a great sacrifice! What an act of love that must have been!
But no. The thing that they did involved a great sin on their part—perhaps not so much in the eyes of men, but most certainly in the eyes of the most holy Lord in whose church their sin was committed.
Let's look at this story a little closer, and consider . . .
1. THE SIN (vv. 1-4).
The Bible tells us,
If I may be allowed a bit of 'imagination', I think that a dinner-time conversation went on between them that sounded something like this:
“Saph, honey; I've been thinking . . .”
“Yes, Anni; what about?”
“Well; wasn't that amazing at church the other day—when Barn gave all that money from that land he sold? Do you remember how generous everyone thought he was? And do you notice how folks in the church have been looking up to him ever since?”
“Yes! And that money is certainly going to a good cause. It'll help a lot of people.”
“Well, I've been doing some thinking. We've got that piece of land; and it's not doing us any good just sitting there. I already know a buyer who said he's interested in it. Why don't we sell it and give the money to the apostles?”
In my imagination, Ananias and Sapphira sold that piece of land, took the proceeds home, and prepared to bring it to church the next chance they got. But then, Sapphira said;
“Anni; I'm wondering about this. That's a lot of money; and I'm having second thoughts about this. Things are sort of tight right now. Do we have to give it all?”
“Well; no. There's really no reason why we would have to give it all. It's ours, after all; and we can do whatever we want to with it. We can give it all to the Lord, or we can give a part of it to the Lord and keep a part for ourselves, or we can even keep it all for ourselves if we wish. It's was our own land, and the money is under our own control. The only thing about it is, though, that I thought we would give it all to the Lord—sort of like Barny did. I really like the reaction he got from the apostles and the church for doing that. Wouldn't mind having a little bit of that praise myself.”
“But let's not give it all; Anni. I'm a little nervous about doing that. Let's keep at least some of it.”
“Now that you mention it; I'm a little nervous about giving it all up too. Alright. Let's keep some of it.”
“But Anni; I know what you mean about liking the reaction that Barny got. I'd like for people to look at us that way too. I suppose they wouldn't, though, if we gave the money and then announced that it was only a part of what we really sold land for.”
And here is where sin crept in. Ananias thought about it and said, “Well, who needs to know all the details, Saph? We just wont tell them how much we really sold the land for. All the apostles need to know is what we brought the money to them. They don't need to know the real amount of the sale; or that we kept a portion of it back. Look at it this way; they win because they get the money for the poor; and we win because we get a little extra money to meet some needs. In fact, we double-win; because we also get the recognition for being as sacrificial as Barny!”
Now; it needs to be stressed that, if Ananias and Sapphira had agreed to sell the land and give only a portion of the proceeds to the apostles, there would have been absolutely nothing wrong in that. It truly was their land and their money; and they were under no real compulsion whatsoever to sell the land or even to give a single penny to the apostles. If they had given only a portion of the money to the apostles, and simply told them that it wasn't all and that they kept some of it, everything would have been fine. People might not have looked at them as if they had been as sacrificial as Barnabas or as others; but Ananias and Sapphira would not have done anything wrong.
But that's not what they agreed to do. Instead, they conspired together to lie—maybe not so much in their words; but most definitely in their actions. They wanted people to think that they had brought all the money to the apostles, and to see them as being very spiritual and sacrificial Christians.
Now; that's not as terrible a crime as some others we've all seen done in a church. I don't think that Ananias and Sapphira were worse sinners than a lot of other people would be. In fact, I think that, in the eyes of men, they would have stood out as 'above average' just by the plain and simple fact that they sold the land and brought ANY portion of the money to give to the poor!
But in the eyes of a holy God, they did something very, very sinful. Their great sin was that they pretended to have a greater degree of spiritual devotion and a sacrificial spirit to the Lord than they really had. In other words, they were being hypocrites. They were trying to put over a lie before men; and were hoping that people would think that they were something that they knew—before God—that they were not.
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Now honestly; have you ever seen such a thing happen in church? Or more to the point, have you ever done such a thing in church?
Think about it. Have you ever sang that great hymn, right in time with everyone else in the church, that says,
but known in your heart that you don't really intend to give Him all? You're not about to sit with your arms folded and NOT sing! I mean, how would it look if you did that? But you also know that you don't really committed to the words you're singing. Or do you ever sing that hymn, along with the rest of the saints, that says,
Take my life and let it be
but known that you really don't mean to consecrate your whole life to Him? Sometimes we can't sing what's really in our hearts; because there aren't any hymns in the hymnal that say, “A little bit to Jesus I surrender . . . but not the whole thing!” or “Take a tenth of My life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee . . . But I'm keeping the other nine-tenths for me!” But we certainly don't want people to know that that's really what's in our hearts; and so we sing a lie!
Think of it: Have you ever prayed a prayer in church that was just a bit more flowery and spiritual-sounding than usual—partly to be heard of God; but also partly to be well-thought-of by the other saints that heard you? (Pastors, I'm afraid, are not immune to that sort of thing.) Or have you ever done a charitable act for someone else—ostensibly in secret; but with the hopes that the 'left hand' WILL find out what the 'right hand' did?
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira—the sin of hypocrisy and of lying to the Holy Spirit—was a very great sin before God. But to be perfectly honest, I'm too afraid and too ashamed to condemn them too much. To some degree, or in some form or another, I'm guilty of frequently doing what they did. I too have pretended before others in church to be a bit more spiritual and sacrificial before the Lord than I really was.
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Look at what happened whey they brought the money to the feet of the apostles. Perhaps they were expecting to hear people praise them, and say the things about them that they said about Barnabas. And yet, the Bible says,
Now; how did Peter know this? I believe that the only way he could have known was that it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. And look at the things that he said about what Ananias had done.
First, he said that he did not lie to the apostles, but—in reality—to the Holy Spirit Himself. Peter said that they lied “to the Holy Spirit; and then said, “You have not lied to men but to God”. In this, by the way, Peter was affirming the Trinity. He was calling the Holy Spirit “God”. But the point to notice in this is that, while Ananias thought he was pulling one over on the apostles, he was really seeking to lie to a divine Person who knew his every thought and his every motive. What a blasphemous and unholy thing to do in the household of God!
And second, notice where this evil action originated. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit . . .?” What a dreadful revelation! In his act of hypocrisy, Ananias was, in reality, allowing himself to be an instrument of the devil—who, as Jesus tells us, is 'the father of lies' (John 8:44).
Stop and think for a moment of how much damage has been done to the cause of Christ through the church because of hypocrisy. I have heard many people say—and perhaps you have heard them too—that they don't go to church because, “It's full of hypocrites!” There is nothing more distasteful to thinking unbelievers than professing Christians who pretend to be something that they're not. Many people will not enter into a church because some professing Christian has burned them in a business deal, or has lied to them, or has spoken against some sin while they themselves were committing it in secret. No wonder the devil was involved! I think that the devil has accomplished more harm to the cause of Christ by sponsoring “hypocrisy” than just about anything else! And it spreads like leaven! No wonder the enemy sought to introduce hypocrisy into the church, at the very beginning of its history, through Ananias!
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And no wonder God took immediate and startling action to protect the holiness of His church! This leads us to consider . . .
2. THE JUDGMENT (vv. 5-6).
The Bible tells us,
I have heard of some who criticize Peter for this. But I'm not sure why they do—or even why they think that they can! Peter, it doesn't seem to me, really had any idea that Ananias was about to fall over dead; and he certainly wasn't responsible for the man's death. It clearly was an act of judgment from God—much like the judgment that God administered to Nadab and Abihu, or to Achin, or to Uzzah.
And what's more, I've even heard of some who criticize God (which, to my mind, really doesn't seem like a smart thing to do). They say that God was being too harsh; and administered too strong a judgment upon too minor a sin. But who is any man to tell God how He should see to the purity of His church?
Such criticisms, it seems to me, miss the point badly. God was seeking to communicate, at the very beginning of His church, that He Himself is an unspeakably holy God; and that He does not tolerate sin in His presence; and that He expects personal holiness on the part of the people who come before Him. God administered a strong judgment on this occasion—as He has on other occasions—in order to make that point abundantly clear! And apparently it was clear, because we're told that “great fear came upon all those who heard these things.”
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The Bible tells us that “the young men” arose, wrapped up Ananias' body, and immediately took it out—probably to one of the nearby hillside tombs—and buried him. I'm sure that the young men were called, in part, because they were more physically capable; but I suspect that it was also to follow the pattern given in the tenth chapter of Leviticus; because there, when Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, that Moses called for their cousins Mishael and Elzaphan to carry them away from before the sanctuary of the Lord (Lev. 10:4-5). But I also can't help but wonder if Peter may have called young men to come and do this difficult task because of the life-long impression it would have made on them. They never would have forgotten God's high demand of holiness!
And no sooner had this been done than—as if to truly emphasize the point—we read of . . .
3. THE JUDGMENT REPEATED (vv. 7-10).
Where Sapphira was during all of this is something we're not told. Perhaps she was out doing some kind of business with the proceeds of the land that they kept for themselves. At any rate, we're told,
Have you ever walked into a room—all happy and ignorant—and immediately sensed, as soon as you walked in the door, that something was very seriously wrong? I think Sapphira could tell by the looks on everyone's faces—a look of great fear—that something significant had happened.
I think that she even began to ask. That's why, I believe, the Bible tells us that Peter “answered” her. It may have been that, when she walked in, she saw Peter and the others standing were Ananias' money had been laid—before the feet of the apostles; and saw them staring at her in horror. It may be that she had a look on her face that said, “What—?”; and that look demanded to be answered.
The Bible tells us,
I don't think Peter's words to her—that the young men would carry her out—was so much a sentence of death as it was a prophecy of it. Peter did not kill her; but he did foretell to her that, because of her conspiracy with her husband to lie to the Holy Spirit, she would suffer the same fate as he did.
The fact that this judgment also fell on Sapphira, as it had on Ananias, drove the point home dramatically and powerfully to the church. It was as if God were giving a double-warning! But I also believe that it is meant to communicate to us that not only is hypocrisy a great sin in the sight of God; it is also equally a sin to conspire with hypocrisy! Not only do those who live hypocritically “lie” to the Holy Spirit; but those who support them in their hypocrisy also join in that lie—and in the guilt of sin.
* * * * * * * * * *
I have often wondered about those young men. This had been a day in church they'd never forget! And I even wonder, after they had buried Sapphira next to her husband, if they were more than just a little bit hesitant to come back to the church—not knowing what they'd find next!
And that leads us, finally, to consider . . .
4. THE CONSEQUENCES (vv. 11-16).
One aspect of the consequences is told to us in verse 11;
And notice that, whereas before it was upon “all those who heard these things” that great fear fell (v. 5), now it was “upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” that it now fell! Both those outside the church and those inside the church shared a common sense of the dreadful holiness of the great Lord Jesus Christ who was worshiped in it! That fear of God is a powerful antidote, if I may say so, to hypocrisy!
But that's not all! The sin of hypocrisy having been exposed and dealt with, we go on to read of the power of the church's witness and ministry in the world. We read,
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God works powerfully through a church of people who are real before Him. But He will not tolerate unholiness in the lives of His people. He has shown us that very clearly in the very beginning stages of the history of His church.
This has led me to ask myself often why it is that more of us do not drop dead in church? Why isn't a hearse pulling into the parking lot every Sunday morning for the weekly 'pick-up'? I can't think of any reason other than God's grace. It is only by His mercy that we don't all suffer what Ananias and Sapphira suffered.
He has shown us how he feels about hypocrisy in His holy house; and has shown it to us powerfully in the story of Ananias and Sapphira. And since He has given us His grace, may we use that gift of grace to repent of all hypocrisy in our hearts. God cleanse us individually; and purify each one of us, who profess His name, of every shred of falseness in His house.
For we do not ever really lie to men, but to God!
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