Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.
That we never landed on the moon.
That Area 51 houses all kinds of aliens.
That JFK was murdered by members of his own cabinet.
Did you know the NT Church was not without conspiracy?
Today we are going to read about a conspiracy that took place in the early church, learn a thing or two about our own hearts and see why God is the ultimate detective of truth. Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Conspiracy
The conspiracy starts in Acts 5. But to really understand it well, we need to get some of the context from Acts 4:32-35. It says this:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (4:32-35)
Did you follow what was going on? The Early Church took care of each other. When they noticed someone in need, they not only gave money to help that person out, but they sold property to get money to help that person out.
Verse 36 identifies one specific instance of that. It says, “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought he money and put it as the apostles’ feet.”
And I love that his nickname becomes “Son of Encouragement.” Because it is super encouraging when you are out of a job, when you don’t have enough money to feed your family, when you are running out of money to keep the lights on at church, for someone to give you a gift to help out. Now imagine if someone sells their property and gives all of the money to the work of the Lord!
What Barnabas did encouraged the Early Church: People said:
Look at what God did!
Look at what he worked in Barnabas’ heart!
Look at God’s grace to his people.
Segue to chapter 5 and there’s a guy named Ananias.
He has a wife named Sapphira.
Ananias was a part of the early church and had heard all about Barnabas’ awesome gift.
He heard his church friends talk about: “What an awesome gift that Barnabas gave!”
He saw it in the monthly report: “Thanks to Barnabas for his gift.”
He saw the Facebook post from the Early Church with Barnabas’ smiling face attached to the caption: “Thanks to Barnabas for his incredible gift – we helped 5 widows!”
Ananias saw all of this.
And he wanted in.
He wanted in, but he didn’t want to give up what Barnabas did to get in order to get it. So…
He came up with a plan:
Ananias together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. (5:1-2)
Did you follow what he did?
Say Ananias had a beach house (because beach houses are pretty awesome). He put that beach house on Zillow.com and ended up selling it for $500,000. Ananias took $250,000 of that beach house sale and put in the bank. Then, he took the rest -- $250,0000 and gave it to the Early Church. Only back then it wasn’t in a checkbook, but a big old bag filled with coins – copper, bronze and gold. (I imagine he looked kind of like the Monopoly guy as he came in and placed that bag before the disciples).
Ananias was expecting to hear the same kind of praise that was lavished on Barnabas to be lavished on him:
This is amazing Ananias!
You are wonderful Ananias.
I can’t wait to tell everyone, Ananias, about how you are such a wonderful man.
But that’s not what he got:
Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings, but to God.” (v.3-4)
When Ananias heard this, he fell down…and died. (v.5)
Let that sink in.
He sold a field.
He brought ½ the money and gifted it to the church.
He was rebuked.
And he died.
And that’s not the end of the story. Look at what happened next. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened, Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” Did you really give all the money to the church?
And Sapphira – who knows full well that it isn’t – has no problem smiling, and saying, “Yep. That’s the full price. We gave it all to the church.”
And Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door and they will carry you out also.” (v.9)
And at that moment, she fell down at his feet and died. (v.10)
This might be one of the most shocking deaths in the Bible. It seems to come out of nowhere and when our imperfect, human nature reads this it seems to put God in a bad light! As a result, there are three main ways that scholars interpret this parable.
(1) It’s a propaganda myth – a propaganda story used to scare people into giving money to the church.
But if it were a mere propaganda myth, I think it would be a terrible choice. If I started telling people at Bible Basics, “After you’re a member, you’d better give about $1000 per month or God will give you a heart attack,” I’m not so sure our membership would be trending upward.
The point is that if the disciples made this up, it seems like a terrible advertising choice. If their goal was to make up and start a religious movement, this would be a fairly foolish and strange story to include in its origin story.
(2) It’s a weird coincidence -- a weird one at that. They were shocked at having been discovered so their blood pressure increased, genetic problems surfaced and…death.
But to believe, you have to believe that husband and wife both have that condition.
That husband and wife both die from that same condition within hours of each other.
That husband and wife both die right after Peter calls them out for their deception.
Not likely? It only leaves option 3.
(3) It’s the truth. While this is the least popular theory, it’s the only one that makes sense. People knew Ananias and Sapphira. They were a part of the church. People knew that they died – in fact a group of church people was there when Ananias brought the funds and died at Peter’s rebuke!
This is real.
This is truth.
This story circulated at a time when people said, “Oh yeah. I remember that…”
But IF IT’S TRUTH. What does it mean?
Is God a big meanie for doing this? That’s always our sinful, imperfect response and I’m asking you right now to fight it. Remember – we are imperfect. We are sinners. We are the ones whose hearts have been affected by evil. Before you bite on this, consider for just a moment the alternate perspective that God is not the bad guy in the story. That what happens is a good God fighting evil.
Ok. Ananias did evil. But what was his evil? Does it mean that our good God wants us to give 100% of your paycheck to him? No. In the Old Testament, God demanded 10% as an offering. In the NT, God demands that we give our first fruits, that we give cheerfully and that we give generously. God doesn’t demand 100% of our money. (Although if he did – he is the One who gives us all things, so it wouldn’t be unfair for him to ask for what he already owns.)
What’s the real problem?
Look at a few key phrases:
“You have lied to the Holy Spirit…” (v.3)
“You have not lied to human beings, but to God.” (v.4)
“How could you conspire to test the Spirit?” (v.9)
The problem wasn’t that they kept ½ the money, but that they pretended to give it all.
The problem wasn’t that he wanted to keep some cash, but that he wanted the label of super godly without being super godly.
The problem wasn’t that they stole God’s money, but that they wanted to steal God’s glory.
II. Conspiracy within Us
What about you?
Do you belong to a conspiracy?
Do you conspire to steal God’s glory?
Of course, as any good, conspirator your first response will be to deny it.
But…examine your life…if you’re involved in spiritual conspiracy to steal God’s glory…the clues are there.
Telling your friend “I give 10% of my money to church.” When you know by 10% you meant 10 % of 10% of your spending money which is 10% of your take home pay.
Spending more time getting the right filter for the photo of you studying the Bible to post on Instagram, than actually studying the Bible.
Making sure everyone here knows you as a devoted follower of Jesus, while your secret internet history shows you are a devoted follower of XXX.com.
Telling your coworker “I belong to Gethsemane Church,” and by belong you mean, “I show up and barely pay attention for about an hour every month.”
Stop stealing God’s glory as an individual.
But what really strikes me in this text is the word “conspire” in verse 9. Because conspire involves more than one person. Ananias and Sapphira conspired together.
Our goal as a church is to aim towards God’s glory. But…
We need to be oh so careful that don’t let this place become a secret hideout for conspirators against God.
A place where we high five each other and talk about how awesome we are at following God…and forget all about the God we are following.
A place where we build a state of the art Early Childhood Center and remind everyone about how hard we worked at making the ECC --- with no mention of the One who empowered us to do so.
A place where you tell me how great I am for coming here and I tell you how great I am for coming here – and we talk about how awesome we are at ministry without actually participating in any ministry.
We can’t be a church of lies.
We can’t be a church of deception.
Even though we might fool each other.
Even though we might fool others.
We can’t fool God.
Ananias and Sapphira couldn’t hide the truth from God.
God knows all things.
God sees all things.
God knew their sin.
God knew their heart.
And our good God judged their evil sin.
And you can’t hide the truth from God.
God knows all things.
God sees all things.
God knew their sin.
God knew their heart.
And our good God will judge your evil sins.
III. Good News in a Conviction Text?
As Christian preachers, we believe that the ultimate end to the story of the Bible is good. That a good sermon convicts people of sin, but then offers the solution for their sin in Jesus their Savior. Good news. It’s not hard to find the convicting part in this text. Don’t conspire, don’t lie to, don’t try to deceive the Holy Spirit! And we have, and we are convicted. Forgive us Lord.
But what about the good news?!?
Do you see it?
The good news in this text is simply this:
You aren’t dead yet.
Neither am I
God has mercifully, patiently, kindly continued to grant us life in spite of our deceptions and lies.
God has mercifully, patiently, kindly continued to reach out to us and call for truth.
God is mercifully, patiently, kindly reaching out to you with the truth right now.
And the truth about every human heart is this –
We are sinful.
We need a Savior.
We have a Savior.
Our Savior Jesus came to this world without a deceptive bone in his body.
And he died at the hands of men who conspired to steal God’s glory.
And when he died – he died far apart from any glory!
Yet – three days later – he rose and attained all glory.
But that glory, rightfully His, he offers up to you and to me.
That’s truth. It’s no conspiracy. It’s truth. God loves you dearly.
IV. What Now?
1. Be Truth-Filled
It always seems easier to lie.
It might seem easier to talk a big game.
To tell everyone you’ve got it all together.
To save face and make sure everyone knows “you’re a good Christian.”
But that’s not truthful.
1 John says this:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and his word is not in us. If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. (1 John 1:8-2:1)
Isn’t that crazy? When we deceive and try to steal God’s glory, all glory is removed from us. People will find out. Your glory façade will fall. (That’s what happened to Ananias).
But when we confess our sins and are truthful about our utter lack of glory, God gives us His own divine glory in Christ.
The glory of Jesus means that when God our Father examines with his divine-magnifying glass every aspect of our lives – our hearts, our thoughts, our hidden longings – the only thing that He finds – is righteousness. Sinlessness. Perfection.
Be truthful. Receive REAL glory.
2. Inspire Each Other
We do not want to be a church conspiring together to steal God’s glory.
But how awesome to be a church known for inspiring each other with God’s glory!
To inspire with the message that Jesus died for us!
To inspire with the message that Jesus rose for us!
To inspire with the message that Jesus forgives us.
To inspire with the message that His heavenly riches are ours!
The other day I met lady at a coffee shop while I was working on this very sermon. She found out that I was a pastor and she asked if she could give me some advice. She told me that I needed to stop mentioning the word sin. That I needed to stop mentioning the need for some Savior. That I needed to tell people they could do it and they were alright, and they were generally doing pretty well.
And I thought…
So…you want me to lie?
Because with all the love in my heart and motivated by the love in my heart, God tells us that is not true.
Things are not alright.
Helping each other pretend that things are alright might give the gift of momentary, phony, human glory.
But telling the truth and seeking the true Savior – gives eternal, real, lasting, divine glory.
God wants us to live in truth.
God wants to heal you.
In fact, if you continue Acts 5, right after the account of Ananias and Sapphira, the text returns to telling of God’s incredible healing power. It tells of how God made the lame walk, the sick healed and the injured well.
That’s the truth.
That’s what God wants for us.
That’s what God wants for you.
Be truthful about who you are. And you will be truth-filled with who Jesus made you to be. Amen.