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“Of Purer Eyes Than to See Evil, And Cannot Look on Wrong”

Acts 4:36–5:11

Introduction: The record makes it clear that, though the church and the apostles found great favor among the people (2:47; 3:9, 10), their preaching and their claims that Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified was in fact the long-expected Messiah whom God had raised from the dead also prompted great opposition and murderous hostility (4:1–3; 6:8–13). This led to some severe social disruption, probably ostracism of family members, and created an immediate and a long-term need for providing for the daily necessities of many in this new community of believers (Acts 11:27–30; 1 Corinthians 16:1–3; 2 Corinthians 8, 9; Galatians 2:10; Acts 24:17). This immediate and evidently severe need led to the events of this lesson.

I. 4:32–37 -The Spirit of Unity, Benevolence, and Commonality.

A. Verse 32 – Believers saw themselves as all of one family spiritually and put the needs of others as more important than their own (cf. Philippians 2:1–4).

Their material possessions, therefore, they shared in common in light of the exigencies of the situation.

B. Verse 33 – The Apostolic preaching of the resurrection of Christ continued to be blessed with great power.

None placed their material well-being as a priority over the proclamation of truth about the glory of Christ and the resultant saving grace of God.

C. Verses 34, 35 – The church conducted itself in the way that Paul at a later time, still dealing with this same situation, instructed the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8:12-15.

    1. They gave according to the ability to do so, and sometimes beyond their ability (2 Cor. 8:3), in order that needs would be supplied. As each person had needs, so their needs were met with the result that “there was not a needy person among them” (34).
    2. Supplies gained through the generosity of those who sold land and gave their proceeds to the community were laid at the apostles’ feet for distribution according to need. This led to a division of labor later (Acts 6:1, 2).
    3. The selling of lands and houses cannot have been absolutely exhaustive or the solution would have made a more difficult problem than the present crisis. None would have had places to live or produce food for ongoing needs. God is not abolishing the principle of personal ownership of property by the measures employed to relieve the desperation of ostracized family members. These events highlight the principle of generosity that reflects the freeness of saving grace. The situation called for generosity, a compelling sense of unity, and application of a principle developed throughout similar passages in the Old and New Testaments concerning ownership of property in connection with compassion for the needy. (See Leviticus 19:9, 10; 25:23–34; 35–38; James 2:14–17; 4:13–17; 5:1–6; 1 John 3:16–18).
    4. The action of Barnabas is given as an example of sincere benevolence. He proved throughout his Christian life his gracious character. He served as an unwavering example of the principle of discipleship Jesus enunciated in Mark 10: 29–31 in response to Peter’s assertion, “See we have left all and followed you.” Barnabas has surrendered his property for gospel purposes and did not exclude himself in that surrender (Acts 9:27; 15:36–39). He sold “a field that belonged to him” and brought the entire amount to the apostles.

 

II. A Plot to Deceive and Impress – This event could be an answer to the prayer of 4:30 that God would stretch out his hand to heal and “signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Ironically, this “wonder” was not a healing but a killing.

A. Ananias and Sapphira, in an effort to gain the same kind of esteem in which Barnabas was held, decided to give the appearance of emulating his generosity. Barnabas, whose given name was Joseph, was called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement)’ – 4:36.

Wouldn’t that fulfill the need for esteem to gain such apostolic commendation? According to their plan, they would sell “a piece of property,” determine an amount to keep for themselves, but give the appearance that they, like Barnabas, brought the entire proceeds from the sale for the relief of the destitute in the church.

B. The recognition of original ownership – “Each person must give as he has made up his mind,” according to 2 Corinthians 9:7.

Peter’s confrontation with Ananias proceeds on the principle that Ananias owned his property and had the right to do with it as he saw fit. “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own?” (5:4). Even when he sold it, he had the right to use the price of the selling as he saw fit. “And after it was sold, did it not remain at your disposal?”

C. A Plot to Deceive – The action of selling and giving only part of the proceeds to be distributed by the apostles was done “with his wife’s knowledge” (2).

She showed her complicity in her answer to Peter, saying that they had sold the land for the amount that they gave, when it clearly was not the case (8).

D. A Lie to the Holy Spirit – So deeply connected was the ministry of the apostles and the entire life of the church with the convicting, converting, and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, that any attempt to mislead either the apostles or the church was seen as lying to the Holy Spirit (5:3).

Peter’s alignment of the Holy Spirit with God (5:4) is one of the clear points of demonstrating the deity of the Spirit. Also see 1 Corinthians 2:10, 11 for a necessary implication of the divine status of the Spirit in his knowledge, activity, sanctifying influence, and gracious operations: “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

 

III. This startling event give serious attention to the deadly character of sin. For this deceit, God immediately took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira. 

Skeptics look at the biblical record apart from any admission of the consistency and legitimacy of the world view set forth in Scripture and find only reason for being horrified at such a presentation of God. Some of the examples of God’s manifesting his prerogative of life or death over every single individual of this fallen race in this fallen world are as graphic as they are striking—killing the entire population, excepting one family, in the flood (Genesis 6), striking individuals dead for being “wicked” (Genesis 38:6–10), wiping out tens of thousands by plague and absolute control of nature (Exodus 12:29; 14:26–29; Numbers 16:31–35, 41–50), raining down fire from heaven to consume two entire cities (Genesis 19:23–26), purposing the elimination of entire people groups during the Israelite conquest of Canaan (Joshua 3:10; 6:20, 21; 8:24–29, et al.). The deaths of this husband and wife and God’s judgment executed by any means he sees fit are not discordant with the Bible’s view of the seriousness of sin.

A. We must grasp the radical nature of the universal implications of Adam’s sin.

None of the actions of God in taking the lives of humans can be understood as just, equitable, and consistent with true virtue apart from the world view established in the revealed narrative of creation. In that narrative we learn that the created image-bearers of God immediately receive an infinitely just obligation of worship and obedience toward the Creator, a positive injunction for obedience. Their disobedience and consequent fall into sin and death is given in a detailed narrative.

    1. The entire race fell into immediate death through ruined affections. In Genesis 3:8 Adam and Eve hid from God to avoid their normal and daily time of immediate fellowship with him. Their disobedience had brought about alienation of affection from him, a mental disaffection from the giver and eternal source of life, the unchangeable manifestation of infinite intelligence, wisdom, beauty and holiness. By willful sin they had brought death on themselves and, acting as the representative of all his posterity, Adam had involved the entire race in this disaffection, and ergo, death. All of humanity lies at the prerogative of God. Present blessings come by mere grace. An eternity of restored and unhindered fellowship in heaven becomes a sinner’s joyful future by mere sovereign mercy. Just punishment in hell gives transparent manifestation to the pure unprejudiced justice of God.
    2. Physical death was delayed but the bestowal of immortality immediately was removed. Adam lived over 900 years. Prior to the flood, humans lived regularly for multiplied hundreds of years. Subsequent to the flood life spans rapidly diminished until by the time of Abraham life spans became more and more consistent with what we presently observe. Physical death, however, except in rare cases determined by divine intervention (Enoch and Elijah), has come upon all people and is a clear indication of the universality of death-deserving sin (Romans 5:12, 21; 6:23). For the redeemed, it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
    3. In the eternal covenant of redemption, God had given a people to his Son (John 6:37, 39, 64, 65; 10:27–30; 17:1, 2). The world is preserved for the sake of the Son’s glorifying the Father by his obedient death, receiving glory from the Father by his resurrection, and manifesting the power of the Spirit in sending him to give, by omnipotent power (Ephesians 1:19) spiritual life to all those for whom the Son has died. The world is preserved for the manifestation of God’s great mercy, grace, and power in giving persevering determination for the sure salvation of his elect (2 Peter 1:10, 11; 2:20–22; 3:8–10; 14–18).
    4. A defining trait of faith is the belief of the heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Such a full-orbed commitment necessarily includes the reason for Christ’s death with consequent purpose of his elevation above death. His death at the hands of cruel and unjust men was at the same time the just manifestation of divine wrath against human sin—a propitiatory sacrifice (Romans 3:25). Fully spent on His Son, the Father’s action of justice had removed sin’s consequence of eternal death. Now the promise of life operates for all those for whom he died, bearing their sins in his own body as “the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). To believe, therefore, that God raised Jesus from the dead means that one accepts his own condemnation for sin as impeccably just, embraces Christ’s having substituted himself unto death, thus fully absorbing sin’s consequences. Faith necessarily embodies the conviction of condemnation, and that God acts justly in requiring full payment for sin. To think that God is unjust in inflicting immediate death—after years of patient endurance—on sinners is evidence that one has an insufficient grasp of Christ’s resurrection.

B. Immediate judgments or delays serve God’s purpose.

    1. Sons-in-law of Lot – Genesis 19:14. Worldly unbelievers are incapable of taking seriously the abiding propensity of God to judge an unholy, irreverent, idolatrous world. Lot’s sons in law thought that Lot was jesting in his warning for them to leave the city immediately and they were burned with the rest.
    2. Belshazzar (Daniel 5:30) – This pagan monarch had been given the example of the conversion of his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar, but still insisted on making sport of the vessels taken out of the temple in Jerusalem. He lifted up himself against the “Lord of heaven” (Daniel 5:23) and the “God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.” That night he was killed by Darius the Mede.
    3. Herod – He was eaten with worms. He accepted accolades of speaking “with the voice of a god, and not of a man!” and was struck down, eaten by worms, and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21–23.)
    4. Nadab and Abihu (Aaron’s Sons) – They ignored the instructions concerning the way of offering fire upon the altar of sacrifice and “fire came out from the Lord and consumed them” (Leviticus 10:2). They arrogated to themselves a prerogative, feigning worthiness, superiority, and power in a matter in which they were strictly stewards. They were to obey the positive command of how to offer fire and they usurped the sole prerogative of God; They did not need a specific prohibition of offering fire in any other way for the positive command was enough. God reclaimed his right of being honored, “I will be sanctified and before all the people I will be glorified.”
    5. Uzza – Uzza reached out his hand to steady the ark of God and “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6, 7). They ignored the instructions concerning how the ark was to be transported from one place to another (Numbers 25:12–15). David, in this event equally to blame with Uzza, was spared for the sake of the messianic covenant with David and his house.
    6. Paul saw this principle operative in the profaning of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1Corinthians 11:29–32).

C. This judgment was only one of several manifestations of power that served to preserve fear, awe, and holiness in the church in these initial stages of its formation as the New Covenant people of God.

“And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (verse 11). Under the Old Covenant, God acted with immediate purgings of the disobedient, rebellious, and unholy from the people he was preparing to be the conduit of revelation, law, prophecy, and the genetic foundation for the human nature to be joined with the person of the Son of God. Is it not at least as understandable that he would employ such manifestations of holy judgment to establish, in a New Covenant, a people redeemed “from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14)?

 

God’s will creates and then upholds
Each stone and tree and bug and womb.
His rule o’er death and life unfolds
In cross and cry and empty tomb.

None can doubt His sovereign right;
Holy justice moves His might.

When we are dead His Spirit lifts
Our souls from wrath and gives us life.
Converted hearts and selfless gifts
Express Christ’s grace, replacing strife.

The pow’r of God’s salvation
Makes sons of consolation.

That work of grace made Christians share
All that they had with those in need.
If God’s Son showed His bleeding care,
Could we still cling to things in greed?

Barnabas sold a choice field,
Gave the church what it did yield.

Coveting such a reputation
Ananias joined with his wife
And pledged a like compensation
To give the apostles its price.

When sold they kept back a part,
Hiding deceit in their heart.

Peter stood the price to receive;
Ananias had robbed the pledge.
“You plot a purpose to deceive;
You pushed your life beyond the edge!”

Ananias breathed his last,
Money and applause now past.

Sapphira joined him in the grave,
Because she joined him in the lie.
God can condemn as well as save,
For sin with justice will comply.

God’s holiness hovers near;
Wrath and mercy prompt our fear.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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