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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am am service, 2016-02-21

Text: Acts 5:1-11

Two weeks ago, it was reported in the news that online crime in Singapore rose sharply in 2015. And this is due to the increasing number of scams over the last three years. Millions of dollars have been lost through scams involving online purchases, cyber-extortion, romance, rental, lottery, and impersonation. One in five Singaporeans have been deceived by scammers claiming to offer a very good deal or service, when in fact these scammers are only serving themselves. The deception is so convincing and well-concealed that no victim suspects their selfish intentions until it is too late.

This however would never affect God. God can never be deceived or scammed because He knows the thoughts and intents of every human heart. No matter how well-disguised a deception may be, God will see right through it immediately. This has important implications on our service to God and His people – implications that were felt most keenly by the early church when a Christian couple who seemed to be making a generous contribution was suddenly struck dead!  Let us turn our Bibles to Acts 5:1-11 to see how this happened.

In our study of the first four chapters of this book we had seen how the early church grew into a powerful movement of more than 8,000 believers. As they spent much time together in God’s Word and in prayer, the Holy Spirit forged them into a strong close-knit community that could not be stopped even by persecution from the authorities. Things were going really well as they lived out God’s love by serving and helping one another sacrificially. Everything up to the end of chapter 4 is so joyful, upbeat and glorious.

But now in chapter 5 we see something quite different: We see the very first recorded sin in the church, and the first recorded deaths in the church. Many have difficulty accepting the death of both husband and wife under such circumstances, and have even questioned the way that their sin was handled. In fact, no account in the Book of Acts has drawn more criticism than this one: How could the apostle Peter be so cold and harsh to Ananias and Sapphira? Why did he treat their trivial offence as if it was such a huge serious crime? Why was no compassion shown to them, and no opportunity given for them to apologise and make amends? How come Sapphira was not informed that her husband had died, and they were buried so quickly without any funeral ceremony?

All these criticisms can only be silenced by understanding God’s view of this couple’s sin. There was actually a lot more at stake than we think, for if this sin had been handled any less severely it would have brought disastrous effects on the church! To tolerate it or mitigate it is to let it grow and grow until it defiles the whole church and deprives it of all life and power from God. And God’s disciplinary judgment of this sin was especially needed to drive home two vital principles. The first is that…

1. God Wants Purity in Our Service

Here in our passage the service rendered was the offering of funds. In the preceding chapters we had seen how the need for funds arose. The apostle Peter had preached a powerful Gospel message during the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Thousands of souls were saved and the Early Church suddenly had many new members who needed to be discipled. These believers had come from afar and they did not return to their homelands after the Feast but they stayed on in Jerusalem. With the extended stay of such a large group of believers in the city, there would be great material needs. The local believers now had to provide board and lodging for them as long as they stayed in Jerusalem.

To make matters worse, the early church was in the midst of a very hostile environment. The Apostles were arrested at the beginning of chapter 4. Jews who became Christians were excommunicated. Many would lose their jobs and be ostracized by society. This means that the early church now had to rally together to help their poor and needy members. How did they do this? Members who owned properties sold some of them to provide funds for them. One of them was Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus. He sold a piece of land and brought the entire proceeds of the sale to the apostles to be distributed to needy members.

Ananias and Sapphira also sold their property. But when they brought the money to the apostles they said that it was the full amount received from the sale, when it was only part of it. God’s disciplinary judgment came immediately: They died on the spot. Why did the couple die? It wasn’t because they did not give enough. It was because they had conspired to deceive in their giving.

Let us look at what Peter said to them in Acts 5:4 – “Whiles it remained, [i.e. before the property was sold] was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? [or ‘Was it not at your own disposal?] why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” The couple would still be alive if they had not given anything, or if they had been honest that what they gave was just part of the proceeds of the sale. They would not have died!

They were under no obligation at all to sell their property or even to give any amount from the sale to God. It was entirely up to Ananias and Sapphira whether to give or not to give, and how much or how little they should give. So they both agreed to give only a portion of the money and keep the rest for themselves. But unfortunately both of them also agreed to tell the apostles that what they gave was all they had received from selling their property. Why did they do this? They probably wanted to give the impression that they were just as sacrificial and generous as some other members, like Barnabas was. And so this was a conspiracy to deceive the church into giving them more recognition and praise than they deserved.

What made their deception so inexcusable was that it was done despite strong manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church. Ananias and Sapphira were probably among the multitude of believers who had experienced the working of the Holy Spirit. Acts 4:31 tells us that “…when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.” They were also privileged to witness the great power of the Apostles’ preaching, and the great grace which was upon all believers (v.33).

With such clear signs of God’s presence with them, this couple should have known better than to foist a deception to garner some glory for themselves. What they did was a personal affront to God, it was an act of mocking God to His face. That is why Peter said to them in v.9 – “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” They got what they deserved. Death was what they reaped for what they had sown.

But there was another reason why God took their lives. It was done to foil Satan’s attempt to destroy the church from within. Let us look at verse 3 – “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” Satan is the ‘Father of lies’ (John 8:44). By lying about his offering, Ananias was unwittingly allowing Satan to use him to destroy the church. Satan had already tried to destroy the church from without – by means of persecution – but it only made the church increase in strength and number. But now Satan uses a different strategy to destroy the church – entice its members to commit sin so that when sin grows and infects the entire church, God Himself will act against it!

If Ananias and Sapphira were not punished, they would become bolder to deceive again for more selfish gain. This trend would eventually attract the wrong crowd to join the church – those who make a pretence of piety and devotion just to get power and glory for themselves. Thankfully this outcome was prevented when God took the lives of the couple, as we see in vv.13,14 – “And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: [i.e. no one dared to join the church with wrong motives] but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The church was not only saved from destruction – now it grew in strength and number with genuine believers.

There is an important lesson for us to learn from this event: Sin often brings deadly consequences. We should therefore make every effort to put sin away from our lives before it destroys us and others. Ananias and Sapphira were not the only ones in the Bible who died because of sin. When the Israelites were conquering the Promised Land, one man’s sin caused the deaths of 36 men at the battle of Ai. This was because Achan disobeyed God’s command and secretly took the spoils of Jericho for himself, as Joshua 7:1 tells us – “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.” As a result of this, Achan and his family lost their lives. The effects of sin are truly pervasive and tragic!

When we studied 1 Corinthians during our morning services last year, we learned how the sin of some church members at the Lord’s Supper caused them to fall sick and even to die (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Instead of eating and drinking to remember the selfless death of Christ, they indulged their selfish appetites at the Lord’s Table and made a mockery of the meal. The Lord had to intervene by taking their life.

However, their physical death does not mean that they were not saved. True believers sometimes die prematurely because of certain sins, but they still go to heaven. God alone determines when a person’s life will end. Their premature death may be God’s way of preventing their sin from influencing many others to fall into the same sin. This may be the case with Ananias and Sapphira, as well as with the Corinthians who abused the Lord’s Supper – they all died prematurely but there is no question about their salvation. However a word of caution is necessary here – Please do not conclude that every time a Christian dies prematurely, it is because of sin. Whatever the reason may be, we accept it as God’s will.

Actually it is only by God’s mercy and grace that we are spared from seeing members dropping dead in the pews every Sunday. If God were to deal with us according to our sins, I wonder how many of us would still be here today. Let us not take God’s grace to us for granted. To keep on sinning and saying, “God is merciful, He will surely forgive me” is a terrible abuse of His mercy. If there is some sin that you have been tolerating in your life, please make every effort to put it away before it starts to destroy you and others.

And whenever you come to Church, please remember that God looks at your heart rather than your service. God’s Word says that “…the LORD seeth not as man seeth; man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Nothing can be hidden God – He knows exactly why we have come here and whether our worship is sincere or not. If our worship is not sincere then we are no different from Ananias and Sapphira. Even though we appear outwardly to be worshipping God, our heart is not in it and we are merely going through the motions of singing, praying and listening to God’s Word. Aren’t we in effect lying to God? If you want to serve God with purity, make sure that you put your heart into your service.

And make sure also that your heart is pure of all unworthy motives. Ask yourself: “Am I seeking for any selfish gain?” Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 6:1-2 – “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” God hates all pretense and hypocrisy! You should hate it as much as He does, and rid your life of it. Every time you serve the Lord, please ask yourself, “Who am I doing this for? It is for God or for myself?”

Let us consider a real life scenario. You have been asked to serve in some work for the Lord. So you do your very best and everything turns out well. But after everything is done no one comes up to show any appreciation to you. How do you feel? Then you begin to hear some complaints about the way the work was done. How does that make you feel? Do you feel that it was not worth your while to have done all that work, and put in all that effort? Do you say to yourself, “I will never serve like this again.”? If that is what you feel, then you have been serving with the wrong motives!

It is not right just to serve well or do something well, you must also have the right motive for wanting to do it well. The right motive for service is love: Love for God and for His people. This is in line with our theme of ‘Serving with Love.’ Let us make it our goal to keep growing in our love for God and His people. Then we will be able serve with purity.

Thus we have seen that the death of Ananias and Sapphira drives home the vital principle of purity in our service. Now we shall see that the impact of their death on the church drives home another principle…

2. God Wants Reverence in Our Service

Let us look at verse 5 – “And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: great fear came on all them that heard these things.” The words ‘great fear’ in this verse speaks of the sense of dread that filled the members of the early church at the unexpected death of Ananias. The same words are found a few verses later, when Sapphira died: “Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” (vv.10,11)

We often think of fear as a rather bad and unpleasant emotion. But fear was actually designed by God for a very important purpose – to makes us more careful when we ought to be careful and to keep us within safe limits. Fear only becomes sinful when we fear what we should not fear at all. Jesus said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) The great fear that came upon the early church after the two sudden deaths took place was a good and healthy fear, for it shows that they now understood better how holy God really is.

God’s holiness always evokes a response of fear from man. When God called Moses out of the burning bush, “He said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover He said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.” (Exodus 3:5,6)

Abraham is the only person in the Bible who is called the ‘Friend of God’ but even he was careful when he asked God to spare his nephew Lot when God was about to destroy the sinful city of Sodom in Genesis 18. Abraham knew that he was standing before the Holy Judge of all the earth. He did not dare to ask Him directly to spare his nephew from being destroyed, although that was his intention. Instead he began by pleading God’s justice: that God would not slay the righteous with the wicked. Then he bargained for fifty to be spared and gradually moved to less and less until he reached ten. Then he says, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet this once…” Abraham understood what an awesome privilege it was to be allowed to bring his petition before a holy God.

One reason why many do not fear God is that they do not understand His holiness well enough. Holiness is the very essence of God’s character. It is holiness that makes God so glorious, unique and infinitely above all others. In Scripture, God calls Himself, “The Holy One” no less than 40 times. That makes it one of the most commonly used titles by which God makes Himself known to man. This shows that God wants us to know that He is holy, that the sum of all moral perfection is found in Him.

The word that best expresses the idea of fear in response to God’s holiness is reverence. Reverence is a worshipful attitude of deep respect that makes us stand in awe of God. Hebrews 12:28 shows us that service to God requires reverence – “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”

Reverence can be seen in Isaiah’s response to a vision in which he saw God sitting upon His throne, with the angelic seraphims crying out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.”(Isaiah 6:1-8) God’s holiness was so intense that His brightest angels had to use their wings to shield themselves from it, leaving only two wings to be used for flying. This vision of God’s holiness was so overpowering that Isaiah felt very unholy, even though by our human standards, he would be a holy man. But when even the holiest man in this world stands before God, he will respond in the same way Isaiah did, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” This literally means – “I am ruined!”

Isaiah says that he received this vision in the year that King Uzziah died. This king was a direct contrast to the prophet Isaiah. He misunderstood God’s holiness and as a result of that, he ended up bearing terrible consequences. According to 2 Chronicles 26:16-20, King Uzziah proudly thought that he was good enough to go right inside the Holy Temple and offer incense to God. Now, offering incense was something that only the priests of God were allowed to do and even they did it with reverence, fearing that God may strike them dead.

But King Uzziah just barged right into the Temple to offer incense to God. And when he got angry with the priests who tried to stop him, he was struck at once with leprosy, and he was forced to live as a recluse until he died. Uzziah had been too reckless to come into God’s holy Presence, a place where even those few who were permitted to stand, did so with reverence and godly fear. Since He failed to ascribe holiness to God, God had to make him sense his own unholiness by making him a leper. May this be a warning to us all, to serve God with reverence because He is holy.

In order to do this, we should first of all keep ourselves spiritually fit for service by confessing our sins and walking in the Spirit. Unconfessed sin gets in the way of our fellowship with God and makes us ineffective in serving God. Therefore we should always confess our sins to God as soon as we become aware that we have sinned. 1 John 1:8,9 tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” After we confess our sins, we should ask God to fill us afresh with the Spirit. God has given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to have victory in our struggle with sin. Galatians 5:16 says, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”

Secondly, before each time that you serve, it is good to remind yourself that the God you serve is holy. Yes, it is true that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” But this doesn’t mean that you can serve Him in any way you like. Remember what is written in Psalm 24:3,4 – “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.” So, whether you are about to attend a worship service, teach a Sunday School class, provide music accompaniment for singing of praise to God, prepare for a church seminar or camp, or carry out any duty in church, please remind yourself that you are about to serve a holy God.

And thirdly, to serve God with reverence let God alone be glorified through your service. As God Himself says in Leviticus 10:3, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” This must be the ultimate goal not only of our service but also of our life. God has made us in His image and has saved us from sin so that we may glorify Him in all that we do.

One of the greatest composers of the Baroque era was Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach wrote over a thousand pieces of music. Some of it was written specifically for use in worship services, some of it was written for performance in coffee houses or private homes. But all of it was written in honour of God – Beautiful music in the service of the Creator of all beauty. Bach used to write the letters SDG on his music scores either above or below his name. This is an abbreviation for Soli Deo Gloria, which means ‘Glory to God alone.’ As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

This morning we have seen how a tragic incident that happened in the early church teaches us to serve God with purity and reverence. We have seen that God wants service from us that is pure and free from all pretence and hypocrisy. We have also seen that God is holy, and that His holiness requires us to serve Him with reverence and godly fear.

The question that we need to answer now is this: Will we serve God according to who He is and what He wants from us? This is the only kind of service that is worthy of God. And God is most worthy to be served by all His people. May the Lord help us then to serve Him with purity and with reverence. 
 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

December 3 & 10 - Holy Living

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 2 Peter 3:11