When the Grace & Fear of God Impact the Church
Passage: Acts 4:32–5:11
The Impact of Someone's Presence
Many of us know what it’s like for somebody’s presence to impact us. Maybe you’re at work. Everyone is waiting for that special meeting to start. You’re chatting about this and that—how the game went, what the kids did, how you think the company should change—until the boss enters. The chatter halts as he starts the meeting. His presence impacts us.
Maybe you and your siblings are eating at the table. Mom and dad step out just a minute. And it doesn’t take too long before someone’s out of their seat. Someone’s picking on little sister. Things get loud; nobody’s sitting still. A napkin makes its way at someone’s head. Then mom and dad enter the room again. Everything quiets and kids pretend to be normal again. Mom and dad’s presence impact you.
Maybe you’re walking through grief. You’ve experienced great loss. You’re alone. You’re tired of these dark thoughts spiraling into despair. You’re about to lose it. All of a sudden there’s a knock at the door. It’s your best friend. She’s come to be with you, pray with you. She brought you a favorite beverage and flowers. You experience comfort, support, love. Her presence impacts you.
All of us share experiences like these: somebody’s presence impacts us. Today, we’ll see what happens when God’s presence impacts the church. His presence has great impact on this church in Jerusalem, but perhaps not always in the way we’d expect. Two ways God’s presence impacts this community: great grace on the one hand and great fear on the other. Let’s read together beginning in verse 32…
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
5:1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
The Grace of God Impacts the Church
God’s presence impacts the church with great grace and great fear. Let’s look first at the great grace impacting the church. We might summarize it like this: the gospel of resurrection and the grace of God compel impressive generosity. We got a similar snapshot in 2:44-45 of the church’s generosity. Luke can’t help but notice that a basic characteristic of a true church is that the people are generous.
A snapshot of the church’s impressive generosity
Notice that “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). There’s no need to read communism into this paradigm. This is not an equal distribution of wealth and property imposed from above. The possessions still “belonged to” the individual, and giving it away was voluntary as the Spirit moved them to meet needs (cf. Acts 5:4).
Having said that, the way they viewed their own possessions challenges us. They held everything in common—“what’s mine is not just mine but given to me for others.” They treat their possessions very much like the Good Samaritan treated his possessions (Luke 10:29-37). There’s a man who has tremendous needs. The Samaritan cares for him and then takes him to the local hotel. And not only does he pay-up the bills, but he tells the innkeeper, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I’ll repay you when I come back.” Openhanded generosity—“Take my credit card. Get this man whatever he needs to get well.”
Some of them sold “houses and lands and brought the proceeds of what was sold…and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Part of our memory verse this week is “sell your possessions and give to the needy.” They’re doing that. It doesn’t mean they sold every house. Chapter 2:46 said they were breaking bread daily in their homes. Their homes were meeting places. They didn’t sell those. Rather, the abundance of some became the means God used to meet the needs of others. They didn’t wait for the housing market to pick up. As needs arose, they met them sacrificially. They found creative ways to sell their stuff and meet needs in an orderly fashion.
The result? Not a needy person among them. There’s well over 5,000 Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41; 4:4)—not a needy person among them. This is some impressive generosity. This would’ve made a mark on society. This isn’t a bunch of rich people doing each other favors. These folks reach across the economic and social barriers to care for each other like family.
The gospel of resurrection
But what’s compelling them to view their possessions this way? How can they give them up so easily? Many of us have lots of stuff. If we’re not careful, our stuff takes hold of us. We begin to love it too much. We turn good gifts into idols and hold them with a tight fist. It’s hard to let go of our stuff. It’s hard to let Jesus determine what we do with our stuff. Jesus said it would be hard to let go of stuff. It’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
What loosens our fists around our stuff to then serve others with our stuff? The stuff isn’t bad. Wealth isn’t bad. Our hearts are bad. What compels the heart away from idolizing the things of this world to loving others with the things of this world? Two things here: the gospel of resurrection and the grace of God.
Right between these two descriptions of the church’s generosity is verse 33: “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The gospel of resurrection and the grace of God compel this impressive generosity. How?
Let’s take the gospel of resurrection first. We could go several places. But I’ll stick to just two. One is Romans 6:10-11. “For the death [Christ] died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” How does that resurrection-truth compel generosity? It says that, for the Christian, the old self that abused wealth and used wealth selfishly is dead; and the new self that stewards wealth for God’s glory and the good of others is alive to God. When Christ rose to live for God, we rose with him to live for God, down to the very penny. Sin no longer rules; Christ rules and lives inside to bring his Father glory with our wealth.
The other passage is Luke 14:12-14. Jesus is dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. Likely a rich guy. He says this: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Why serve people now who can’t pay you back? Because your rich Father will at the resurrection. Your reward isn’t here; it’s with him. And Jesus’ resurrection ensures our resurrection. When you invest money, you want gain. You want assurance that the investment is going to make money. Nothing wrong with making a wise investment. The problem, though, is that we’re so consumed with gain in this life, that we lose sight of true riches in the kingdom of God. Jesus is giving us the best investment plan: invest in his kingdom priorities now—like giving to those in need—and your reward will come at the resurrection of the just, guaranteed. His stocks aren’t going down. His kingdom won’t fail. He has no competitors to put him out of business. He is risen above all.
When you know that, “What’s all this extra stuff? House? Land? I’m going to inherit the earth with Christ!” Give generously because you live for God—Romans 6—and because reward beyond your wildest dreams is coming—Luke 14! That’s how the gospel of resurrection compels generosity.
The grace of God in Christ
How about the grace of God? How does the grace of God compel impressive generosity? Let’s turn to 2 Corinthians 8. I’m taking you here because it’s one of the clearest examples of God’s grace compelling generosity. I’m also taking you there to dismiss the notion that only rich people can be generous. The churches of Macedonia were in extreme poverty, and yet they still gave generously.
Paul is taking up a collection to help the poor back in Jerusalem. He’s writing to churches to encourage them to give to this collection. And he says this in 2 Corinthians 8:1-3, “I want you to know brothers about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means…”
Did you see the pattern? When God’s grace comes upon the church, it leads them to show grace toward others. Grace is unmerited favor. We did nothing to earn God’s favor. He show us favor based on his own loving choice, not based on anything we did. This unmerited favor from God produces a people who show unmerited favor to others. Paul even calls the money-collection an “act of grace” on the church’s part (2 Cor 8:6, 7, 19). God’s grace become visible through the generosity of the church.
But let’s get even more specific. Look at 2 Corinthians 8:9. Paul is asking them to show grace by giving away their money, and this is the driving factor: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” That’s the gospel.
That’s the good news. Perhaps you’re here today, and you wonder what Christianity is all about. Here it is. We were wretched and poor sinners. Our sins separated us from God. No hope for salvation. No way to buy our way out. And we were all going to perish this way. But the richest person in the universe chose to love us by giving up his riches to see us forgiven. Jesus himself was so rich in God that he left heavenly glory, took the form of a servant, and humbled himself to death on a cross, so that you might become rich in God with him.
The deeper that grace gets worked into our hearts, the more freedom we’ll experience in giving to others. Someone asked me last year, “Why didn’t you preach on giving when the budget was down?” Several reasons. But one big one was that we preach Christ. Far be it from us that we’re meeting a budget and not know Christ. But more importantly, the heart of generosity isn’t created by preaching on giving. It’s created by preaching God’s grace in Christ; and when you see his glory truly, O, you’ll be generous.
True children of God can’t help but be generous, after seeing how generous God has been to them in Jesus Christ. That’s what we preach every Sunday. And if you call yourself a Christian but you’re not generous, then you need to ask whether you truly understand the gospel. The gospel of resurrection and the grace of God compel impressive generosity. We should long for great grace to be upon us.
The Fear of God Impacts the Church
What about the fear of God? The fear of God must also impact the church, and make us all the more amazed at his graciousness toward sinners.
Barnabas held up as the example to imitate
Luke shifts to a sobering character contrast between Barnabas and a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. Barnabas, of course is the example to imitate. He’s held up as one of the wealthy land owners who “sold a field that belonged to him,” it says, “and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37).
Interestingly enough, he is also a Levite (Acts 4:36). And what a stinging indictment this is to the other priests who just persecuted the church (Acts 4:1, 6). This Levite represents the true priesthood in Christ that fulfills the law. His faith in Christ compels him to love his neighbor. Barnabas is being held up as what our priestly care for one another should look like, what our sacrifices should look like in meeting needs.
Ananias/Sapphira held up as a warning to heed
Not with Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias and Sapphira are held up as a warning to heed. Just like Barnabas they sell a piece of property. Just like Barnabas they bring money. Just like Barnabas they lay money at the apostles’ feet. Any of us who saw them lay the money at the apostles’ feet might have even thought, “Hey, great job guys! Nice donation. The grace of God is at work.”
But we know that something’s not right by the way Luke tells the story: “with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds.” “He brought only part of it,” which wasn’t the pattern from earlier (Acts 4:34, 37). Something smacks of selfish secrecy and intentional deception, while at the same time keeping a good face before others. As the story goes on, the deception becomes clearer. This couple pretends to bring all the proceeds of their sell, when in reality they’ve kept back some for themselves. They wanted to look generous "without the inconvenience."[i] They went through the motions of generosity without having a heart of generosity.
God exposes them. What they’re doing is Satanic. Verse 3, “Why has Satan filled your heart…” The book to this point has been the Holy Spirit filling the church. But Ananias is filled with Satan. Do not be fooled. Satan doesn’t just attack the church through persecution outside; he also attacks the church through corruption inside. Be watchful. The enemy roams around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Give him no room in your life, no foothold. He whispers that this or that little sin will be okay—nobody will know, God will tolerate it—and before you know it, you’re dead, just like Adam and Eve, just like Ananias and Sapphira.
Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies.” So it’s no surprise that Peter exposes Ananias as lying to the Holy Spirit over this. In verse 4, Peter says he has lied to God. That’s because the Holy Spirit is God. All they did was lie to the church, right? All they did was lie to men, right? Wrong. Lying to men is ultimately lying to God.
People can’t see the heart, but God knows the heart. Peter speaks with prophetic insight and boldness: “Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?” You can try all you want to look generous, but God knows what’s motivating your heart. You can try all you want to look like a Christian, but God knows your heart. You can pretend to know the gospel of grace, and speak all the ‘Christianese’ you want, and put money in the offering, but what matters most in the end is what God knows about your heart. We cannot fool him. We cannot treat his presence lightly. We cannot fashion him into a god that tolerates whatever we tolerate.
Because of their deceit, because they side with Satan, both Ananias and Sapphira drop dead. God kills them. It’s an act of divine judgment. It’s not the only place the New Testament speaks of something like this.[ii] It’ll happen to Herod in chapter 12 after he robs God of worship. Jesus warns the church in Revelation 2:21-23 that he will strike Jezebel’s children dead if they don’t repent of their idolatry and sexual immorality.
This sudden judgment on Ananias and Sapphira follows a number of examples in Scripture: the sons of Korah swallowed by the ground; Nadab and Abihu consumed by the Lord’s fire; someone touches the ark under David’s leadership and he drops dead. The point of all these stories is that we may not trifle with the Holy One. We cannot approach God on our own terms. If we come to him, we must approach on his terms—with awe and humility and integrity of heart and trust in his provision, Jesus Christ.
Sin is not a trivial matter when we’re talking about the presence of God. Ananias and Sapphira are held up like big warning signs: do not to follow in their steps, do not to listen to Satan’s lies, do not to pretend to know God when you don’t. Rather, fear God. That’s the point. Twice Luke says, “Great fear came upon all who heard it…Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” And great fear should come upon us as we hear these words today. God hasn’t changed.
Let the fear of God drive you to Christ & to holy living
Listen, perhaps this account has struck great fear in you. You realize that you’ve been faking the Christian life all along. Listen, consider the fact that you haven’t dropped dead a merciful gift from God. I imagine there’s a whole lot of people in here, who can look back over their lives and be just amazed by how patient the Lord has been.
I remember telling my dad in high school, as he was encouraging me to give some of the money I was making to the church, “If God wants my money, he can come and take it.” Why in the world did I not drop dead? Sheer mercy. Count this day as a day of mercy and run into Christ’s arms for salvation. God doesn’t owe you tomorrow. God doesn’t owe you another second to repent. Why perish like them?
God has made a way for you to be forgiven for all your deception through the cross. Renounce all future deception and trust in Christ to save you. We’d love to talk with you more about that after the service. Find me or another Christian after the service. It would be a joy to walk with you in knowing Christ.
Church, we too must heed the warning here. It’s not only God’s promises that keep us persevering, but also God’s warnings. His promises are pulling us and his warnings are pushing us toward the finish line. Don’t ignore the warning.
All motivations that contradict the gospel have no place in the church. More and more we live in a culture of tolerance. Sometimes that culture even creeps into the church. Churches have abandoned corrective discipline. Accountability to truth is regarded as judgmental. Instead of walking out repentance from sin, we have an attitude of “Well, everybody does it anyway.” There’s a reason Jerry Bridges wrote a book ten years ago titled, Respectable Sins. The church has come to tolerate certain sins: discontentment, frustration, unthankfulness, impatience, addiction, and so on.
A case like Ananias and Sapphira should keep us from going down the path of tolerating sin. We must ask God to search our hearts and see if there be any waywardness in us. We must consider afresh the holiness of God. God’s holiness is “everything about God that sets him apart from us and makes him an object of awe, adoration and dread to us.” That’s J. I. Packer’s definition. We must keep his holiness in our sights and live our lives before his very presence.
Luke’s honesty supports Acts’ trustworthiness & shows God’s faithfulness
Something else to take away is the apologetic value of Luke’s honesty and realism. He’s very candid about the problems the church faced early on. He’s not trying to paper over the more messy aspects of church life. He does give us the ideal. He does give us what the church could be when people respond to God’s grace. But he’s not afraid to tell the whole truth. In doing so, people should be all the more convinced that Luke is giving us a trustworthy account. He’s not just posting the church’s best moments on Facebook for people to “Like.” He’s telling the whole story, even those that unsettle us.
Church is messy; and if you’re looking for a church that’s not messy, you’re going to be in for a world of disappointment and loneliness. Jump in with both feet and trust the Lord to protect his church from evil. Striking Ananias and Sapphira dead isn’t comfortable. But even within this messy situation, God was faithful. He was protecting his people from Satan. Thanks be to God that even his judgments protect the church and bring a healthy fear of God upon the church.
Let the gospel and grace of God compel generosity
Lastly, let the gospel and grace of God compel generosity. Part of the reason Luke sets these two accounts beside one another is to make sure we’re being motivated by the right things. Generosity is a matter of the heart, not just what you do on the outside. There was nothing wrong with Ananias and Sapphira’s gift in itself; but there was plenty wrong in their hearts. Our hearts must be full of Christ, and what God’s grace has offered us through him. Listen, the only reason the grace of God and the fear of God was upon this church was because the presence of God came to the church.
God chose to dwell with sinful people. He gave up his only Son to bring us into his presence. For those who are in Christ Jesus, there’s no longer any condemnation. That’s compelling generosity, right there! That God would choose to give up his only Son to dwell with sinful people like ourselves. You cannot put a price on that kind of generosity. What kind of people ought we to be, therefore? Does our generosity make God’s grace visible to the community around us? Do we steward our wealth in ways that leads outsiders to ask us about Christ? I’m not saying to create needs by giving to meet needs. But I am saying that the health of a church is determined in part by how well we treat the weak and needy in our midst.
As we come to the Lord’s Supper this morning, come with a great fear of God. He is awesome in holiness and power. Come humbly before him with integrity of heart. But come also with great thanksgiving, knowing that this same God has shown us great grace. His grace in Jesus Christ fits us to sit at his Table without condemnation and with peace.
[i] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990), 109-110.
[ii] E.g., 1 Cor 3:17; 11:30; Jas 5:20; 1 John 5:16-17.