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God’s power for God’s purposes: Beware of the serpent

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 4:32-5:16

One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a lion who tailed a herd of oxen but could find no way to attack the young calves he saw as prey. Each time he drew near, the full-grown oxen circled around their young, horns at the ready. The lion could not hope to succeed against such strength. So he devised another strategy. He hid near the herd and whispered gossip and accusations unseen. Soon the oxen were divided into smaller groups of accusation and slander. And it was easy for the lion to attack the splintered herd.

God’s word warns: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This lion always attacks God’s people at the point of unity. He’s a spiritual economist, seeking the maximum damage for the minimum effort. And he knows that if he can divide us, he can defeat us.

Jesus prayed for his followers across history, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Let’s learn to join his prayer this week.

Earn the enemy’s wrath (Acts 4:32-37)

A group of pastors were gathered at a conference. Heated debate arose around a point of theological interpretation. In the midst of all the arguing, one wise pastor turned to the man at his side and said, “I’m sure glad we’re just the decoys.” His friend asked what he meant. He clarified: “While we’re here arguing and drawing the enemy’s fire, it’s the people back home in their prayer closets who are doing the real work of the Lord.”

The pastor’s sentiment is a welcome endorsement of the ministry of prayer, but a bit naïve. The enemy knows well who his real enemies are. And he always attacks those who attack him. If you and your class are not facing temptation and spiritual adversity, it may be that you’re doing little which threatens Satan. And so, odd as it seems, a valuable spiritual principle is to live so as to earn the enemy’s wrath. Then you know you’re in the will and purpose of God.

Here’s what we can do to please our Father and anger our enemy.

Value the family of God (v. 32)

Verse 32 is proof that apostolic Christianity was miraculous in origin: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Remember that they had come from fifteen different languages and cultures (cf. Acts 2:8-11). The ancient world was notoriously tribal in nature, as extended families and homogeneous cultures learned to depend on none but themselves. To live in harmony across racial and language barriers was unique in their time, counter to centuries of learned behavior.

But such unity was their daily experience. “All” the believers, with no exceptions, “were one in heart and mind,” united in their emotions and their intellect, their feelings and theology. The unity amidst diversity which characterized them immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2:44) had only grown in strength and depth.

They proved their unity not by words but works: “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (v. 32b). This early economy was not an endorsement of “socialism” or “Communism,” despite such claims in the last century. The apostolic Christians possessed no such notions. Rather, these first believers had no one but each other. Their Jewish families likely disowned them for rejecting the traditions of their elders. The Romans wanted nothing to do with them. They lost jobs, houses, and community. They were forced to share all things in common.

Such unity is our most powerful witness, as Jesus made clear (Jn. 13:35; 17:21). Justin the Martyr quoted the astonishment expressed by enemies of apostolic Christianity: “How you love each other!” I was won to Jesus more by the love I saw in his people than the theology I heard expressed by his leaders. Every father is pleased when we love his children. And the enemy is angered by such unity.

Testify to the resurrection of Jesus (v. 33)

Works and words are the two “wings” of genuine witness, two sides of the same coin. Which of your arms would you rather lose? I have long admired the statement attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” But I also know that we must use words for our works to be effective spiritually.

Salvation requires words: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Paul’s consequent question makes the point: “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (v. 14).

The apostolic Christians knew that their witness required both unity of example and power of speech: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Ac. 4:33). They were under compulsion: “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac. 4:20). Their conviction was clear: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Ac. 5:29).

When we are willing to testify with courage, we will receive “much grace.” God’s purpose will never lack God’s power. We must show others why we love each other so much, so they can know how to experience such love in their own lives. And the enemy is angered by such courage.

Help those who are hurting (vs. 34-35)

As more and more people came into the faith, the social and financial needs of the first Christians continued to grow. They would not yet pay for their faith with their lives (though this strategy of the enemy would soon be initiated). But their lives were changed in dramatic and difficult ways by their commitment to Christ.

Despite the economic hardships which many faced, “There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). Why? Because those who had means shared with those who did not. This development shows that not all the first Christians were impoverished before coming to faith (as Barnabas’s example will soon show). Christianity appealed to hearts and souls across the social spectrum. And all responded as they could.

Here is a basic principle of Christian stewardship: not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice. God judges us by our heart condition more than our financial ability: “if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12).

Those with means “put it at the apostles’ feet,” trusting its distribution to the Christian leaders, “and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Ac. 4:35). We do not give to the church, but to God through the church. And God directs his people as to the best use of his resources.

Here is the best way to help hurting people: give all you can, trusting God to use what you give in the most effective way. How much should you give? C. S. Lewis was right: the best answer is that we should give more than we can spare. God is pleased with such sacrifice. And the enemy is not.

Set an example others can follow (vs. 36-37)

Barnabas is one of my favorite figures in the Bible. I’m not the first to feel that way. No Barnabas, no Paul. If someone had not done what Barnabas did, Saul of Tarsus would have stayed in Tarsus. And our New Testaments would be missing thirteen books.

His name means “Son of Encouragement.” It would be honor enough to be given that name at birth. But his fellow believers, after witnessing first hand his character and priorities, assigned it to him (v. 36), even higher praise. He was a Levite, descended from the priestly tribe and thus a man of great significance within Judaism. He was a wealthy landowner, so much so that he could sell a field and give the money to the apostles (v. 37). But he sacrificed such social status to follow Jesus. And others would follow his example, most notably the apostle Paul.

If those in your class were to follow Jesus on the same level of sacrifice they see in you, would the Father be pleased? Would the enemy be angry?

Stand boldly against sin (Acts 5:1-11)

Satan’s attack came in the same way it usually does: at the heart and unity of this family and army of faith. Ananias and his wife Sapphira pretended to give the Lord all they made from a land sale. They were wealthy enough to have land to sell, and devious enough to attempt to use that sale to advance themselves within the church. Both Ananias and Sapphira were culpable; she lied about their action even more directly than he is quoted as doing (v. 8). Both were confronted by Peter, and both paid for their sin with their lives.

Ananias and Sapphira are as infamous in the New Testament as Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old. Let’s consider briefly the two most common questions this story raises in most minds.

First, why did God punish their sin so severely? After all, they were benevolent enough to give some of the proceeds of their sale. Their only sin was deception in lying about the entire amount. Had they sold the same land for the same price and given the same amount, but with public acknowledgement that their gift was not the total land price, their gift would have been received with gratitude. Such a gift is far more typically the way we give to God today than is Barnabas’s action. Nowhere does the Bible require us to give everything we make from possessions we sell.

Their only sin was one of appearing to be more benevolent than they really were. Is this sin not repeated consistently in the church today? A teacher gives the impression that he has studied more than he has, and quotes a commentary as though the words were his own. A preacher delivers a sermon prepared by someone else as if it were his. A person is given more food than her family needs, and shares some with a neighbor as though she prepared it herself. A family makes a large contribution to our capital campaign, using an unexpected inheritance but giving the impression that the gift is their own sacrifice.

Deceptive benevolence is an easy sin to commit. And among all the wrong things we can do, most of us would see this crime as fairly benign. Those who would stone Stephen to death in two chapters were not punished as severely as this husband and wife. Saul of Tarsus participated in the persecution of multitudes of Christians, and was never punished by God. Why so severe a penalty for these? If this was the proper consequence of their sin, why is it not the result of such deception today?

Ananias and Sapphira were punished for their deception with death, for one reason above all others: theirs was a cancer which would have crippled or destroyed the Christian movement. Their deception would not have stayed secret for long. Those who bought their land would likely make the sale price public or available, and the sale itself was a matter of public record. The church would eventually know that two of its honored donors had lied about their gift and motives.

As a result, the public witness of the church would have been impugned in the larger community. The credibility and integrity of the apostles and their leadership in this process of benevolence would have been undermined or destroyed. And such deception, left unpunished, would have encouraged the same sin in the hearts of others. If they could deceive the Spirit, he is not truly Lord. Soon reverence for God and trust within the family of faith would be lost, and their community would be fractured.

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was nothing less than a ploy of Satan to attack the unity and heart of the church (v. 3). Left unchecked, this cancer would have spread throughout the body of Christ. As it was, the punishment Ananias and Sapphira faced led to the opposite result from that intended by the enemy: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11).

One other question is common with regard to this story: how did Peter know of their sin? It is of course possible that he had access to the public records regarding their sale, though nothing about such knowledge is suggested in the text. The answer is found in one of the most significant statements about the Holy Spirit to be found in all the Scriptures.

In speaking to Ananias, Peter exposed the plot of Satan as a lie “to the Holy Spirit” (v. 3). Then he concluded, “You have not lied to men but to God” (v. 4). Later he asked Sapphira, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (v. 9). When we deceive the Holy Spirit we deceive God, for he is the “Spirit of the Lord.” Here is proof of the absolute divinity of the Holy Spirit. He is God the Spirit, equal part of the Triune Lord.

And it seems clear from the text that this Holy Spirit revealed the sin of Ananias and Sapphira to Peter. He made the apostle a spiritual oncologist, revealing to him the cancer before it could spread further. In so doing, he made clear to all that he sees every heart and motive, and will stop at nothing to keep God’s people pure. The “great fear” which seized the whole church was not a fear of Peter’s omniscience, but of God’s.

Expect the power of God (Acts 5:12-16)

The result of Peter’s courage and the church’s resultant fear of the Lord came quickly. The leaders performed more miraculous signs and wonders; the congregation grew in unity and numbers; crowds gathered with their sick, and “all of them were healed” (v. 16). And the Kingdom moved forward, having weathered the attack of the enemy and emerged in victory.

One question sometimes arises with this paragraph. Verse 13 documents that “no one else dared to join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people,” but the next verse says, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Is this a contradiction?

Several options exist in clarifying the context. “No one else” could mean “no other imposters” such as Ananias and Sapphira, having seen what happens to those who sin against God’s people. Luke could mean that “no one else” joined the believers as they met in Solomon’s Colonnade unless they first came to faith in Christ. He could mean that those who met in Solomon’s Colonnade were so feared by the people that even those coming to faith in Christ were afraid to join them in their meeting.

Or Luke could be describing the growth of the church chronologically: (1) the episode with Ananias and Sapphira led to “great fear” in the church and community (v. 11); great miracles followed (v. 12); the community was afraid to join them (v. 13); then “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (v. 14). There is no contradiction in the text, only a different context than is ours today.

But the same Spirit and the same power which enabled their church to explode in growth now lives in us, and wants to do the same through us.

Conclusions

Three applications of this week’s study are clear. One: we should live and serve so as to incur the wrath of Satan himself. We are to assault the very gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). We do so when we love each other, stand boldly for the risen Christ, meet each other’s needs, and set a godly example for the family of faith. If Satan isn’t attacking us, perhaps we’re not threatening him.

Two: every sin grieves the Lord and leads eventually to death (Romans 6:23). God’s warning to Eve in the Garden (Genesis 2:17) still applies to every sin and transgression. Sometimes the consequences of our sin are less obvious at first than they were for Ananias and Sapphira, but they are no less real. The truism is nonetheless true: sin will always take is further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we wanted to pay.

Three: every secret is known to the Lord. Every motive, every thought, every word of gossip or slander uttered in confidence, every transgression. We must “keep short accounts” with God, spending time often in confession and cleansing. The Holy Spirit can use us to the degree that we are holy. Then he will work through us as he did through the Jerusalem church, to the glory of God.

Is your class a threat to the enemy? Is he attacking your class or church at some point of unity in response? Do you need to confess an act or spirit of deception or divisiveness? Peter warned us that the devil is a “roaring lion” (1 Pt. 5:8). And lions only roar when they are about to attack.

There’s no time to lose.