By Mark Scott
In Luke’s summaries of the earliest church, we see it at its best (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). The gospel was being preached, people were being saved, a congregation was being planted, communion was being celebrated, and giving was off the charts. Who would not want to be part of a church like that?
What a Church
Acts 4:34, 35
There were no needy persons among them is quite a compliment to any church. Is this example of the early Jerusalem congregation a pattern for us? If the literary context of the example indicates some level of approval by the author and if the activity described is commanded elsewhere (see also 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), then following the example makes good sense.
The early believers understood that their lives were on loan from God, so they extended themselves in an adventure of priorities by taking care of others. They sold property and brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Encouraged Through Giving
Acts 4:36, 37
One stunning example of sincere generosity was Joseph. The text identifies him as a Levite from Cyprus. He is better known by his apostolic nickname, Barnabas. This man was not perfect (Galatians 2:13), but he encouraged through giving (today’s text), through supporting (Acts 9:27), through teaching (Acts 11:25, 26), and through church planting (Acts 13, 14).
The text makes no mention of why Barnabas had property as a Levite, but perhaps that law (Joshua 18:7) was not being followed at the time. Perhaps Barnabas was singled out because of his connection with the apostles or because of his geographical distance from Jerusalem (Cyprus) or because the amount of the gift was sizeable. He might have been one of the first “persons of capacity” in the early church (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Discouraged by Lying
The early church looked unstoppable. Even though there had been persecution from without (Acts 4:1-22), the church remained spotless in character from within. Internally it was strong. But that was about to change.
Let the record show that the church has an enemy. Our adversary can twist even the finest of intentions and actions into perversity. That was the case with Ananias and Sapphira. No doubt Barnabas’s sincere generosity was noticed. Ananias and Sapphira noticed as well. They became a dynamic duo for insincerity—mixed motives.
It seems that this couple put in place together (co-knowledge) an agreed upon (symphony) scheme to gain some glory for themselves. Bottom line: they lied, and lying is serious. We are our words. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34, English Standard Version). Lying dishonors God, brings reproach on us, and discourages the whole church. Jesus said, “People will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36, 37, ESV). Embezzling funds (the same word from v. 2 is found in the Septuagint, Joshua 7:1, concerning the activity of Achan) is part of what is bad here, but lying about that embezzlement is worse.
Peter’s confrontation of Ananias was strong. How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit? It would seem that Peter spoke from divine insight and was on the attack from the start of the conversation. At least with Sapphira he questioned her and gave her a chance to make good (v. 8). But she failed alongside of her husband.
This story is not humorous, but it is told with such succinctness that it appears almost funny to us due to the Bible’s main methods of humor (irony and pun)—the burial by the young men, Sapphira not being informed of her husband’s death, and great fear coming upon all. But this is no laughing matter. God had to nip the first lie in the bud, lest the church become corrupt and the missionary enterprise of the church be compromised.
This text raises all kinds of questions. Is lying to the Holy Spirit the same as lying to God? Is lying to God a way of testing God? Is this the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31)? Is this the sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16)? Regardless of all the questions, the takeaway is this: sharing with sincerity is good, but sharing with sincerity plus humility and integrity of speech is better still.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.