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Contrasting Characters in the Early Church

This morning we are continuing our look at the book of Acts – specifically we will be looking at the last few verses of chapter 4 and the first few verses of chapter 5. Last week Mike took us through the bulk of Acts 4 as Peter & John boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ as they stood on trial before the temple authorities. They had earlier been arrested after healing a lame man and preaching to the crowds that Jesus was the Messiah who had been raised from the dead.

Well, the religious authorities at the temple didn’t appreciate that kind of preaching, and so, upon being released from prison, Peter & John were strongly warned to never to preach again in the name of Jesus – but of course, the apostles stated quite emphatically that they could never stop speaking about what they had seen and heard. In fact, as soon as they were released, they met together with the rest of the church to pray for even more boldness in sharing the Gospel.

And of course, God was quite happy to answer their prayers. In fact, the last verse of that passage says this:

31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:31

Undeterred by the threats of the authorities and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples faithfully continued to carry out the mission they had been given by Jesus Himself – to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

And of course, as they did that, the church grew by leaps and bounds. Back in verse 4, Luke gives us a numbers update and he says….

“…the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.” Luke 4:4

5000 men had put their faith in Jesus in just a short time – in probably just a matter of days or weeks. And that’s just the men. There were undoubtedly women and children as well, so the total number of those in the church could have been around 10,000 or more by now. What a church! And even more amazing is how Luke describes this enormous group of people… Look at what he says in verse 32:

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind.

Acts 4:32a

Now that is an amazing statement! All the believers – some 5 to 10,000 of them – were all united in heart and mind. That’s almost hard to believe!

Most of us know from experience how hard it is to get people on the same page – whether you’re trying to do something as a team at work or as group of kids for a class project or even just trying to decide what movie to watch as a family – it is a rare thing that people are united in heart and mind!

But that’s exactly what God intends for his church. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus prayed for when He prayed for his disciples back at the last supper. If you remember from John chapter 17, Jesus said:

20 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

John 17:20-21

This is the kind of unity that we see in Acts 4. Even though they numbered in the thousands – in their hearts and mind – they were as one! They didn’t see themselves as many individuals – they saw themselves as one! In fact the rest of the verse goes on to say…

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32

They didn’t even consider their possessions to be their own – but rather they considered everything to be available for the good of the group!

Now this isn’t to suggest that the church had a communist-style philosophy where no individual owned anything, but rather, it just illustrates their unity and love for one another which led them to share everything they had.

This would not be unlike a marriage. When you get married, you enter into a shared life someone else! As the Scripture teach…

“…a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” Matthew 19:5

And as such, because you are now united into one, you care for that other person like you care for yourself And so, out of that love and care, you eagerly share everything you have with them! You don’t even consider what you have to be your own, but rather you consider it all to be yours together as a couple. After all, why would you withhold good things from someone that you are united with?

And that’s the principle we see here in Acs chapter 4. All the believers considered themselves to be united in Christ – they were brothers and sister in the family of God. And so they cared for each other accordingly. We read further in verse 33…

33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

36 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. 37 He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.

Acts 4:33-37

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Now today, we expect the government to care for those in need. We have welfare, social assistance programs of all sorts, child tax benefits, and more! But back then, if you fell on hard times and didn’t have friends or family to help you out, you were in serious trouble! There was no help from the government!

And so for the entire church of 5-10 thousand people to have no needy among them was pretty incredible! That didn’t happen in the outside world back then! But because of their great love for one another, they took care of each other – even going so far as selling their homes or land so they could give to those in need.

Now again I should clarify that this was not a requirement set by the church – there was no expectation that people were to sell their possessions to give to those in need. I think that’s probably why Joseph gets singled out here – because his actions were a little bit unusual. Not everyone in the early church sold their homes and land to provide for the needy. But some, like Joseph (or Barnabas as he came to be known) did. Apparently God had blessed him with more than He needed and so when he became aware of those in need in the church, he sold one of his fields and gave the money to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit.

And we don’t get any sense that He was pressured to do that. We don’t see that anyone was asking him to do that. But rather, all we see is this “Son of Encouragement” doing what he felt God wanted him to do so that he could encourage and care for his brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s a wonderful illustration of what God expects all of us to do. And by that, I don’t mean that God necessarily expects you to sell your stuff to give to the church. But rather, God expects you to use whatever He has given you to care for one another and build up the church. Paul instructs us in Romans 12:4…

4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Romans 12:4-8

Just as every part of our body somehow contributes to the well-being and function of our physical bodies, so God has given us certain gifts so that everyone in his family can contribute to the well-being and function of the church! Barnabas obviously had at least a couple of those gifts – the gift of encouragement and the gift of giving! And He eagerly used those gifts for the benefit of the church.

And so this morning, I’d just ask you: How have you been using your gifts? Now I know that not everyone has a field to sell – but every one of us has some gift from God – something that we can use for his kingdom and glory. 1 Corinthians 12:7 says…

7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. 1 Corinthians 12:7

So the question is: What are the gifts that God has given you and how have you been using those gifts to help each other? What have you been doing to serve the church?

And I don’t just mean our church here in Penhold – I’m talking about God’s church – His global kingdom that has been growing since the Day of Pentecost. How are you contributing to the kingdom of God?

Last week we had a whole row of people standing up here – preparing to spend at least part of their summer serving God out at camp. Some were going be counsellors, some were going to be horse wranglers, some were going to wash dishes and take out the trash. But all of them were going to use their gifts to encourage one another and build up the church.

Two weeks ago, Alex and Amber where up here – sharing how God was leading them to move down to Mexico to serve the church there – again, using their gifts to contribute to the Kingdom of God. What’s God calling you do to?

God may not call you to serve in Mexico or even out at Camp Little Red. He may not ask you to sell one of your fields to give to the poor, or even to stack chairs at the end of our service today. Then again, He might ask you to do all those things! I don’t know – but I do know that God has given you a unique gift – a unique way for you to serve God and build up the church for God’s glory.

I would just encourage you to be faithful to His calling. To do what he’s asking you to do today. To use your gifts and abilities to build up the church and to bring Him glory.

As Mike was talking about last week, it all comes down to our obedience to His voice. That’s what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit – it means we have surrendered our will to His and we allow Him to led us and guide our actions. And if he prompts us to go sell our field, then we’d better go sell our field. If he puts it on our hearts to serve out at camp – then we’d better go serve out at camp. The most important thing we can do is to be obedient to his voice.

And that actually is a good segway into chapter 5 now, because in contrast to Barnanbas, we’re going to see another couple of believers who were not obedience to the Holy Spirit. In fact, instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter says these two had their hearts filled by Satan – which I think is quite a strong warning for us! But anyway, let’s read the passage and see what’s going on here! Acts chapter 5 now – verse 1.

But there was a certain man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. 2 He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest.

Acts 5:1-2

It appears that this guy Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, wanted to mimic the generosity of Barnabas. Or at least, they wanted people to think that they had mimicked his generosity. So like Barnabas, they sold some of their property and brought the money to the Apostles. However, they didn’t bring all the money – they kept some of it for themselves. For whatever reason, they weren’t prepared to give the entire amount – but they still publicly claimed that they had donated the entire lot! It seems they were less interested in helping the needy and more interested in looking impressive to the rest of the church. It seems they wanted to appear to be as generous & “spiritual” as Barnabas – when in fact, they obviously were not. Take a look at verse 3.

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. 4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”

Acts 5:3-4

As Peter points out, the amount that they gave wasn’t the problem at all! Peter said that they property was theirs to do with as they wished. And even after selling it, they money that they got was still theirs to do with as they wished. They had no obligations to give any of it.

The issue was that they decided to lie to the Apostles (or more accurately, lie to the Holy Spirit) and say they had given the whole amount – when in fact, they had kept some for themselves. Now, had they simply said, “We’ve decided to give just a certain percentage of the money and keep the rest for ourselves” – that would have been just fine! That would have still been a generous gift to those in need. 

But as we can see, Ananias and Sapphira weren’t actually motivated to help the needy – their real motivation was to look good in front of everyone else. They were motivated by pride. They wanted to look spiritual and even “Spirit-filled” like Barnabas.

But as Peter pointed out – they weren’t Spirit-filled at all. They were actually Satan-filled.

 If you read through the Gospel of John, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Truth” – whereas in contrast to that, Satan is called the ‘Father of Lies”.

So there is no doubt about which spirit had filled Ananias’ heart.

And I should point out again, as Mike did last week, that when the Bible talks of ‘being filled’ by something or someone, it means they have allowed themselves to be influenced or controlled by that thing or person.

And that’s what Ananias & Sapphira had done. Instead of inviting the Holy Spirit to influence and control their decisions, they had allowed Satan to take that role.

And that should serve as such a strong warning for us.

As far as we can tell, based on the context of the story, Ananias and Sapphira were born-again believers – just like you and I. But somewhere along the way, it seems they gave – probably just a tiny little foothold to the devil. Maybe it was just a little thought of pride. Or perhaps brief thought of greed.

But then, instead of taking that thought captive and making it obedient to the Word of God, they allowed that thought to grow. They ignored the clear promptings of the Holy Spirit in their heart and in their conscience, and slowly but surely, they allowed Satan more and more influence in their lives.

We need to be careful not to let that happen in our lives. We need to be diligent about inviting the Holy Spirit on a daily basis (if not more often) to have full control in our lives. We need to invite Him to examine our actions, our thoughts and our motives, our attitudes – everything we think and do to make sure that we’re following his leading and not allowing Satan to have any influence in our lives.

And maybe you want to do that right now. This is as good a time as any to make sure things are right between you and God. I’d encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to examine every part of your life – and to point out any attitudes, any beliefs, or any actions that are not from Him. And if there is, confess those things to him, ask his forgiveness, and invite Him to redirect you as He sees fit. Give Him full and unrestricted access to every part of your life. Choose to be filled with the Holy Spirit!

Because the minute we allow Satan to fill our hearts, disaster is sure to come! And that was certainly the case for Ananias and Sapphira. Take a look at verse 5

5 As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified. 6 Then some young men got up, wrapped him in a sheet, and took him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Was this the price you and your husband received for your land?”

“Yes,” she replied, “that was the price.”

9 And Peter said, “How could the two of you even think of conspiring to test the Spirit of the Lord like this? The young men who buried your husband are just outside the door, and they will carry you out, too.”

10 Instantly, she fell to the floor and died. When the young men came in and saw that she was dead, they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened.

Acts 5:5-11

What a tragic ending for these two people who, as Peter put it, “conspired to test the Spirit of the Lord.” 

While it may appear to be a little bit ‘harsh’ for God to strike them dead for this offence, I think we forget that all sin is worthy of death. By all accounts, God should strike everyone of us dead for the sins we’ve committed. It’s only by His grace and mercy that He doesn’t. 

And I don’t dare assume the Lord’s intentions, but if I had to guess, I’d say God wanted to paint a clear picture to the early church of how seriously He takes sin – and what an offence it is to Him when we, His children, follow the father of lies rather than the Spirit of Truth.

What a strong warning to us even today!

And what a contrast we see between this couple and Barnabas! They are almost perfect opposites!

On one hand, we have Barnabas – filled with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we have Ananias and Sapphira – having their hearts filled by Satan.

Barnabas was motivated by his love for the church – Ananias and Sapphira were motivated by their own selfish pride. 

Barnabas gave what he had for the benefit of the church. Ananias and Sapphira held on to what they had to their own demise.

Barnabas became known as the Son of Encouragement – and would later travel with Paul on his missionary journeys! Ananias and Sapphira became known for their deception and their deaths have served as a warned to Christians for the last 2000 years.

What a contrast in character!

And I just wonder, which of those characters do we most relate to this morning?

Are we like Barnabas – the “Son of Encouragement”? Are we like the guy who was filled with the Holy Spirit – full of love for the Lord and love for the church? Are we like the guy who used what God had given him for the benefit of the church and the glory of God?

Or are we sometimes more like Ananias or Sapphira? Have we given Satan some footholds in our lives? Would we rather falsely appear to be ‘spiritual’ than choose to be honest with others or God? Do we value our possessions and our pride more than we value a right standing with God?

And if that is the case for you this morning, then I have some good news for you – there’s still time to make some changes in your life.

If there are areas of your life were you may have given Satan control or influence, you can surrender those areas of your life right now to the Holy Spirit. In just a matter of moments, you can be forgiven and cleaned – you can be filled with the Holy Spirit – the personal presence of God can fill your life and He will transform you from the inside out.

All we need to do is to simply surrender our lives to Him. To be willing to be obedient to his voice – no matter what He says.

Can I encourage you to make that commitment today? To surrender your whole life to Christ! Don’t allow Satan to have any foothold in your life – but rather, choose to be filled with the Holy Spirit on a daily basis.

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