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Well-intentioned dragons

April 18, 1999 -

Topical Scripture: Acts 5:1-16

This week I found this list of actual label instructions on consumer goods:

  • On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping.
  • On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.
  • On some Swanson frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: defrost.
  • On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating.
  • On the package of a Rowenta Iron: Do not iron clothes on body.
  • On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning, keep out of children.
  • On an American Airlines package of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts.
  • On a Swedish chain saw: Do not attempt to stop the chain with your hands.

Good advice, all.

There should be a warning label over the doors of our church buildings as well: Warning: unity attacked here.

That’s an odd warning, isn’t it? But the word of God says as much: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). And being a great economist, he always attacks us first at the point of unity.

How does he assault our community, our unity? And what can we do when he does, in our personal lives and in our church?

The first dragons (1-10)

“Ananias” means “one to whom Jehovah has been gracious”; “Sapphira” means “beautiful.” Both names proved to be ironic, didn’t they?

Verse one tells us that they “sold a piece of property.” Others have done this to help the poor, and been applauded for their generosity. Now these two want that stage for themselves.

However, Ananias, with Sapphira’s full cooperation, “kept back part of the money for himself.” “Kept back” translates a word which means “to embezzle, to defraud”; sometimes in the New Testament it means simply “to steal” (Titus 2:10). He brings the rest of the proceeds and lays the money at Peter’s feet in a legal act of transfer.

The sin is not in the amount. As Peter makes clear, Ananias could sell anything he liked, and give whatever he wished. The sin is in the intent to deceive: to make the church think he has sacrificially given the entire amount when in fact he has not.

Why is this action so wrong? This is obviously a hypocritical act, pretending to be something he’s not. It is act of pride, putting his own enhanced status before the needs of the poor and suffering. And it’s a dangerous act. If everybody did what Ananias did, there would be no honesty, no objective morality, no godliness left in the church. And this fledgling Christian movement, which has only its character to commend itself to others, would be corrupted and ruined.

No wonder: Satan is the author of hypocrisy, of pride, of attacks on Christian character and unity. He used Ananias to lie to the Holy Spirit (v. 3). This is nothing less than an attack of the enemy himself.

But God doesn’t allow the attack to succeed. He always knows our attitudes as well as our actions. He reveals this deception to Peter, who calls Ananias to account for his sin. And in the instant that he hears his deception exposed, Ananias dies.

Then, three hours later, Sapphira comes in. Peter points to the money still at his feet and asks her, “Is this the amount you got for your land?” Her answer in the Greek is emphatic. She, too, lies deliberately; and the moment her sin is exposed she dies as well.

I know this text is harsh. The same God of grace whose power heals the sick and even the demon-possessed in the verses following, here allows, or perhaps even causes, the death of these two church members. Perhaps they died of shock; perhaps God knew that the fledgling church could not withstand such deception.

But two facts from the narrative are clear: the enemy will attack the unity of the church; and God takes such attacks most seriously.Is it any wonder that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11)?

Dragons today

Where do such attacks originate today? We no longer sell everything we have to give to the poor, so that some can exercise hypocrisy in the same way Ananias and Sapphira did. But while the methods have changed, the intent has not.

Marshall Shelley wrote an excellent book on this subject, whose title I’ve taken for my message this morning: Well-Intentioned Dragons (Carol Stream, Illinois: Christianity Today, Inc., 1985). He identifies several such “dragons” at work today. They were all active in the apostolic church. See if you recognize any of these in our church this morning.

Clearly the first category is the hypocrite, the person who pretends to be something he or she is not. Some are what Shelley calls “bird dogs,” always pointing to where the pastor and church should shoot, with no intention of getting involved themselves. “Pastor, if I were you I would give Mrs. So-and-so a call—she has some personal problems you need to help her with.” “The Lord has laid it on my heart that we need to be praying more for revival.” “We need to do more to help the poor in our community.” But the “bird dog” has no intention of getting involved personally. He appears more spiritual than he is.

Others he calls “entrepreneurs,” using the church only for financial or personal reasons, the person who joins the church for business contacts, or to impress his boss who goes here, or to date the girls or the guys who attend. That’s his purpose, his reason for coming, though he doesn’t want you to know it.

Still others he calls the “sniper”: using spiritual language to attack personally. “Be sure to pray for Mr. So-and-so. He has some problems, you know.” “We need to be praying for our [name the staff member]. He’s just not as effective as he used to be.”

Does this mean that the church is full of hypocrites? No, there’s always room for more. We are all tempted to pretend, to be something we’re not. And the enemy will use our pretense to attack the community of God.

A second category is the controller, someone Shelley calls the “steamroller.” This is the person who seeks undue influence among us, who wants recognition and status and control. This is what Ananias and Sapphira tried to buy; it’s what some of us are tempted to seek today.

Shelley calls one such person “Captain Bluster”: he ends every sentence with an exclamation point. This guy can never talk around the church without making a speech, and he’s always right.

Another he calls the “fickle financier”: the blackmailer, the member who thinks that his or her contributions have earned influence, and who expects to be consulted on every decision the church makes.

A third is the “voice of experience.” This person has been around the church long enough to know exactly how everything ought to be done. He’s sure that anything which didn’t work before will never work, and that “We’ve never done it that way before” is the last word on any subject.

And the third category is the critic. The Christians faced him at Pentecost, before the Sanhedrin, and constantly through the book of Acts. Some criticize directly, in a frontal assault on the church, her leaders, or her motives. Others are far more subtle. They voice concerns and raise objections quietly, behind the back, in the church halls.

Again, it’s a question of motives. Honest, genuine questions and concerns are always welcome in the family of God. But when I criticize in order to hurt you more than help you, to build myself up by tearing you down, motivated by anger and not love, I’m dangerous.

Putting out their fire (11-16)

How do we handle such dragons? We do what Peter did. We listen to the Spirit of God. Peter could not have known of this attack if God had not told him. We stay constantly in touch with the Holy Spirit, for he is more concerned about our unity even than we are, and will show us what to do.

And we act by the leading of God. Peter confronted the situation directly. He didn’t allow this cancer to metastasize. He dealt with it, as soon as he discovered it. We do the same.

Jim Cymbala’s book, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire has been powerful in my life in many ways, no passage more than this one: “One Sunday about 20 years ago, back in our days in the YWCA, I said something impromptu while receiving new members into the church that has stuck with us ever since. People were standing in a row across the front before me, and as I spoke, the Holy Spirit seemed to prompt me to add, ‘And now, I charge you, as pastor of this church, that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, another pastor, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—you have authority to stop that person in midsentence and say, “Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it Pastor Cymbala? Let’s go to his office right now. He will get on his knees and apologize to you, and then we’ll pray together, so God can restore peace to this body. But we will not let you talk criticially about people who are not present to defend themselves.”

“‘New members, please understand that I am entirely serious about this. I want you to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And meanwhile, know this: If you are ever the one doing the loose talking, we will confront you.’

“To this very day, every time we receive new members, I say much the same thing. It is always a solemn moment. That is because I know what most easily destroys churches. It is not crack cocaine. It is not government oppression. It is not even lack of funds. Rather, it is gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit” (p. 160).

And when Peter and the church dealt with the dragons, look at how God blessed: He gave them power to minister (v. 12). He gave them unity as they continued to meet together at Solomon’s Colonnade, on the east side of the Temple (vs. 12-13). He gave them growth, as “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (v. 14). He expanded their ministry, so that people came from all over the area to be healed and saved (vs. 15-16).

They could never have ministered in such community, if they had not first defeated the dragons which attacked their unity. Nor can we.


Now, I have preached this message because God directed me to, not as an act of response, because I have not even a single complaint about a single one of you. Our first year together has been a blessed time of unity, fellowship, and grace. But I believe God directed me to preach this message today as an act of prevention, so that I will not become one of the “well-intentioned dragons,” and so that you will not, either.

Do you see any of these patterns in your life? Then ask God to forgive you and heal you today. He would have forgiven Ananias and Sapphira if they’d only asked him to. Jesus forgave the soldiers who were hammering nails into his body, and we are his body today. He will forgive you, but you must ask him. If you assume you cannot be a dragon, you probably are.

Do you see “dragons” in anyone else? Then ask God to help them, and show you if and how you are to help them.

And remember: God will deal with us as gently as he can, or as harshly as he must. He is a God of grace, but the church is his body. And he will do whatever he must to protect her unity. Our text proves that it is so.

I learned about redwood trees this week. They come from seeds so tiny that it takes three to six thousand of them to weigh an ounce. And yet they are the largest and tallest living things on earth. They can reach 360 feet in height, and mature at 1,000 years of age; some live 2,500 years. And yet their roots are tiny, thin, and shallow.

Their secret? Their roots are intertwined with each other. They stand, because they stand together.

So do we.

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